In the past, all-in-one (AIO) desktop computers that combine the computer and monitor into one unit weren't a good choice for intensive tasks. That's no longer true, and many all-in-one PC desktops have the chops to handle even modern gaming -- as long as settings and expectations are kept reasonable. Many have high-resolution touch-screen displays, though Windows 10 makes that an option rather than a necessity. Styling is another plus -- much more svelte and streamlined than stodgier tower systems.
This is the traditional desktop computer form factor. Tower computers range from super cheap yet capable systems priced under $500, good for basic tasks, to sophisticated systems optimized for high end gaming and priced into the thousands. Desktop towers can be full-sized, allowing for easy access and easy user customization, or use "small form factor" designs that eat up less space and generally consume less power. However, the latter are more of a challenge to work with if upgrades or customization are later desired.
Also called micro desktop computers, these are tiny yet reasonably powerful computers. Most are small enough to be held in one hand, others are smaller still, as exemplified by the latest "stick" computers -- fully functional PCs not much larger than a USB flash drive and that can be plugged into any TV or monitor with a USB input to turn that into a full-fledged computer. Performance ranges from low-priced computers equipped with Atom processors that are fine for basic computing, to Core-processor-equipped machines capable of even decent gaming performance (at least as long as game settings are kept reasonable). Expansion and upgrade possibilities are limited with some models, but surprisingly robust with others.
The average user doesn't need to spend thousands of dollars on a top-performing desktop computer. Computers costing less than $1,500 provide plenty of performance for surfing the web, sending emails, composing office documents and even gaming (as long as you keep your expectations in line with their cost). Good performing all-in-ones run a little higher, with the extra cost coming from their included monitors -- and perhaps a little premium for their generally higher styling. Cheaper computers -- $500 and less -- cut some corners, but still satisfy users with basic demands.
However, power users such as top-gun gamers -- as well those who need serious power for work, such as video editors and other creative professionals -- will benefit from the extra oomph under the hood of a more powerful desktop. These desktop computers have top-of-the-line processors, lots of memory, huge hard drives and advanced discrete graphics. You'll pay more for this type of computer, $3,000 and up (and way up, in fact, for some hard-core gaming models), but very few everyday or even business users need the firepower such systems can deliver. Because of that, those high-end systems are beyond the scope of this report.
One complication in buying a desktop computer is that most vendors offer a multitude of options, and will update configurations regularly as new technology becomes available or parts availability changes for the systems they build. For those who design custom configurations at PC-maker websites, it's easy to increase a desktop computer's price substantially -- sometimes by thousands of dollars -- as you add performance and other upgrades.
The recommendations we make in this report are based upon expert and user reviews we evaluated for a specific computer with a specific configuration. In many cases, more capable and less capable configurations are also available. It's also possible that the reviewed configurations have undergone changes by the maker since experts and even users have weighed in. Where applicable, we've noted the differences between the systems at the time the original reviews were published and the updated configurations available at the time of this report.
To make our recommendations, we scour professional review sources to find the best desktop computers. These include PCMag.com, CNET, TechRadar.com, PCWorld, HotHardware.com, ComputerShopper.com and other technology sites that conduct thorough testing and provide comparative results. We also look at sites that review computers with an eye toward typical users rather than enthusiasts, such as ConsumerReports.org. We then we supplement these professional computer reviews with feedback from desktop computer owners who post at sites such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com. Analyzing that information, we separate the best computers from the ones that are nearly as good by considering a number of factors. Performance, of course, is key. Reliability and how well the maker backs its desktop computers should something go wrong are also considered. Finally, we look at which desktop computers offer the best bang for the buck.
Among all-in-one computers, we see a bit of a consensus forming around the HP Envy 27 (Est. $1,530). Like many desktop computers, it's available in a lot of configurations, and, of course, most reviewers look at different versions. But regardless of which Envy they look at, most experts come away reasonably or completely impressed. Configurations of the HP Envy 27 haul down an Editors' Choice selection at ComputerShopper.com, a Recommended rating at ConsumerReports.org, and 4 star "excellent" ratings at PCMag.com and CNET. User reviews are limited, but the ConsumerReports.org-tested configuration earns a 4.8 star score based on around 40 reviews at BestBuy.com.
All versions that have been professionally reviewed share some basics, including a sixth generation Intel 2.8 GHz Core i7-6700T processor, Nvidia GeForce GTX 950M graphics with 4 GB of graphics memory and 16 GB of system RAM. Storage configurations do vary greatly, however, ranging from a version with a 256 GB solid state drive (SSD), tested by ConsumerReports.org, to a version with a 128 GB solid state drive and a 2 TB traditional hard drive, as tested by ComputerShopper.com. Though not expertly reviewed, configurations with different processors (both more and less powerful), and with integrated rather than discrete graphics, are also available. Some reviewers, such as CNET's Lori Grunin, don't like the keyboard and mouse very much, while others, such as Matthew Elliott of ComputerShopper.com, say they are fine. User reviews are split on that count as well.
The HP Envy 27 differs from the standard AIO design aesthetic by placing all of its smarts and connectivity in a relatively substantial base rather than tucking it behind the screen. As Elliott notes, that accomplishes two things. One, it allows for an incredibly thin display. Two, the beefier-than-standard base allows for more powerful components than what's often seen in an AIO. It also houses a well-above-average sound system -- a quad-speaker affair designed by Bang & Olufson. The I/O complement is robust, including four USB 3.0 ports, HDMI input and output, a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, an Ethernet connector and an SD card reader. Benchmark testing by reviewers show this to be a capable system in all regards, though you'll want to keep the settings dialed back from maximum when playing the most demanding games.
One tradeoff with the 27-inch touch screen is that, while its resolution is higher than full HD at 2,560-by-1,440 pixels, it's not a high as some other AIOs, such as the newly updated Dell XPS 27 (Est. $1,400 and up). Already popular with reviewers and owners, Dell upped the ante with the new XPS 27 by adding in a glorious 4K UHD display.
While user feedback is still slim, experts are starting to weigh in, and the late 2016 version of the XPS 27 is an Editor's choice selection by HotHardware.com and a four-star rated system at PCMag.com. The catch is that those reviewers look at a maxed out system, starting at $2,500 (and around $2,800 as reviewed), that includes a touch-enabled 27-inch 4K display, a sixth generation Intel 2.8 GHz Core i7-6700T processor, a 2 TB SATA hard drive, 16 GB of system memory, and AMD R9 M485X discrete graphics with 4GB of graphics memory. To bring the system cost down in line with the HP you'll need to sacrifice some combination of processing power, storage and/or memory, and abandon touch capability altogether; though thanks to Windows 10, that last issue is not the liability it was with Windows 8.
However, if those compromises-- or the price tag of the higher-end configuration -- are not deal killers, the new XPS 27 is a killer multimedia machine. It sees the four speakers in the HP Envy 27 and raises it to 10, delivering audio that PCMag.com's Victoria Song says will "blow your ears off" -- and disturb the peace and quiet of family members and neighbors, reviewers quip. The screen will be a treat to your eyes, as well, with HotHardware.com's Dave Altavilla saying that the "edge-to-edge glass 4K IPS display is a delight to look at."
No discussion of all-in-ones would be complete without considering Apple's iMac, the AIO that provides the inspiration for current all-in-one designs, and a benchmark against which competing machines are measured. At the time of this report, it had been more than a year since the current iMacs were last refreshed, and there's no shortage of rumors as to when the next refresh is coming -- perhaps as soon as the spring of 2017 -- and exactly what Apple has up its sleeve.
Be that as it may, more than a year after its introduction, various configurations of the iMac sit at the top of the lists of best all-in-ones -- and best desktop computers, period -- at tech savvy sites such a CNET, PCMag.com, TechRadar.com and elsewhere. The base 2015 21.5-inch iMac (Est. $1,100) sports modest specifications though it should still fill the bill for everyday users that are just fine with HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) rather than 4K. However, for a little bit more, reviewers congregate around the 2015 21.5-inch iMac with Retina Display (Est. $1,500 and up). It's equipped with somewhat more robust internals, including a faster processor than the base 21.5-inch iMac, but it's the display that is the scene stealer. CNET calls the 4K, 4,096 x 2,304 pixel screen "stunning," while TechRadar.com calls it "vibrant," and adds that the system is "a small bundle of aluminum joy."
If you'd rather go for a bigger "bundle of aluminum joy," consider instead the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina Display (Est. $1,800 and up). This model offers some component upgrades over the 21.5-inch version, including discrete AMD Radeon R9 graphics rather than the integrated Intel solutions found in the smaller iMacs. It also ups the resolution to 5,120 x 2,800 pixels. This is still not a gaming system, though it will do just fine even with tough games as long as you keep to medium settings. However, the graphics package could be just the ticket for visually-intensive work. "It's the system to get if you perform a lot of tasks that require insane levels of visual detail, like graphics, photography, scientific analysis, and video," says PCMag.com's Joel Santo Domingo.
The tower computer form factor dates back almost to the dawn of the personal computer, and the Dell brand has been around nearly as long. While Dell tower PCs haven't always held the top spot in the hearts and minds of users and reviewers, for this edition of the report we found a strong cross section of positive sentiment toward the Dell XPS.
This desktop comes in two flavors, the standard XPS tower and the Dell XPS Special Edition (Est. $940), and it's the latter system that's drawn the eye of most reviewers. It's an Editors' Choice selection at PCMag.com and the very best desktop computer overall according to the latest list at TechRadar.com. It also earns terrific reviews from experts at PCWorld, Tom's Guide and elsewhere. As with most things tech, there are some dissenters, of course, most notably ComputerShopper.com among those experts we consider to be the most credible. Matthew Elliott only rates it at 3.5 stars, mainly over the absence of a solid-state boot drive, an omission he calls "just silly" at the system's price.
The XPS Special Edition nicely straddles the line between high-end productivity workhorse, and mid-tier gaming rig, including the ability to handle VR (virtual reality) gaming. No, it won't satisfy the most demanding gamers, but for those willing to accept better than average gaming performance with whatever title they throw at it in exchange for leaving a few hundred -- or a few thousand -- dollars in their wallet, it will hold its own against anything else in its class. "Leave it to Dell to contrive a computer that's not only affordable, but arguably one of the best options for gaming disguised as a regular productivity machine," says TechRadar.com.
You can buy pre-configured versions of the XPS Special Edition at retailers such as Amazon.com, or customize its four stock configurations, within limits, at Dell's site. Upgrade options available from Dell include more powerful processors, more memory, more storage, and an upgraded graphics card. It's also user customizable, though, again, within limits -- largely imposed by some of the compromises required to squeeze all of its hardware within a relatively compact case -- some 27 percent smaller than its predecessor, PCWorld reports. Still, if you are the type that likes to dig into your computer, access is easy and, while open memory card slots and hard drive bays aren't extensive, PCWorld adds that, though there are exceptions, there's room inside for nearly any high-end graphics card currently available.
As is typical for a full-sized tower, the I/O connectivity is extensive, including seven USB 3.0 ports scattered on the front and back, as well as USB-C, HDMI, DisplayPort, Ethernet and other connections. There's also an SD card slot and DVD burner. A mouse and keyboard are included, but, as is the case with most tower computers, you'll need to budget for a monitor if you don't already have one.
Most reviewers look at the base configuration, with only an upgraded Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card with 8GB of memory that adds a $250 premium over the stock AMD Radeon RX 480 graphics card. The rest of the basic hardware includes a 6th generation Intel Core i5-6400 Processor, 8 GB of memory and a 1 TB hard drive. With that hardware configuration, the system performs admirably, and pretty much as expected in benchmark and real-world testing. Even its harshest critic, ComputerShopper.com, concedes that the XPS Special Edition "proves itself to be a mostly strong mainstream performer, and a reasonably good value, particularly at the lower end of its four stock configurations."
If productivity is more important to you than gaming, the step-down Dell XPS Tower is worth considering. ConsumerReports.org looks at the base Dell XPS Tower (Est. $700 and up) and comes away impressed. The editors call it one of the fastest models they've tested, and find no noteworthy shortfalls. That configuration includes the same 6th generation Intel Core i5-6400 Processor, 8 GB of memory and a 1 TB hard drive as found in the XPS Special Edition, but the graphics processing is taken down a notch by the use of NVIDIA GeForce GT 730 graphics with 2 GB of graphics memory.
There is one desktop tower that ConsumerReports.org rates higher, however -- a preconfigured version of the Dell XPS Tower, the Dell XPS 8910-4020SLV (Est. $1,000). It's the highest-rated full-sized desktop there, and the site's highest-rated desktop computer of any kind. The $300 price premium provides a lot of value in the form of upgraded internals, including an Intel Core i7-6700 processor, 16GB of memory, and Nvidia GeForce GTX 750Ti graphics with 2 GB of graphics memory.
This configuration is offered primarily at BestBuy.com, where it's attracted a fair amount of user feedback. After more than 110 reviews, it's earned an overall score of 4.6 stars. Around 95 percent of owners offer it a recommendation.
If these tower systems are a strain on your budget, the Acer Aspire TC (Est. $400 and up) is worth a look-see. It's available in a host of configurations through various retailers, but a roughly $400 version built around an Intel Core i5-6400 processor, 8 GB of memory and a 2 TB hard drive gets ample feedback and reasonably good ratings at Amazon.com -- 4.1 stars based on 200 reviews.
The current Aspire TC has not been professionally reviewed by any source we deem credible, but a similar configuration to the one offered at Amazon.com, but built around an older Core i5 processor and with just a 1 TB hard drive, performed well enough in testing at PCMag.com to be deemed an Editors' Choice budget desktop. It's somewhat expandable, a plus for staying ahead of the curve if your needs change, plus reasonably feature packed, including a DVD burner; SD card reader; Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity; seven USB ports (including 3 USB 3.0); HDMI input; and USB keyboard and mouse. With integrated Intel graphics, it's not suitable for anything more than casual gaming, but it should be able to handle most productivity and entertainment tasks with ease.
If all you want is a computer for basic tasks -- browsing the Internet, composing occasional documents, reading and sending email, casual gaming, and streaming video and audio -- every system discussed thus far in this report is overkill -- and massive overkill in some cases -- for your needs and, likely, your budget. Fortunately, there are a host of reasonably capable desktop computers that can fill the bill at a relatively miniscule price. Many are also relatively minuscule in size.
For those that aren't familiar with it, Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC) concept puts the framework of a full PC into a tiny package, usually just a few inches across and tall. Highly upgradable and typically intended for the enthusiast market, users add the processor, memory, storage, etc. needed to deliver the performance they desire, usually at a price far below what a similarly capable desktop computer would cost. But while many NUC computers are barebones models, others are sold fully kitted out and functional right out of the box. Add a keyboard, mouse and monitor, and you are good to go.
Among those, we've seen a couple of very strong reviews for the Intel NUC Kit NUC6CAYS (Est. $225), with both PCMag.com and ComputerShopper.com giving it Editors' Choice awards. It's not a performance powerhouse, but this tiny (4.4 x 4.5 x 2 inches) desktop computer with an even tinier price is more than capable for everyday tasks, with room to grow a bit if needs demand. John Burek at ComputerShopper.com calls it "one of the best values in mini-PCs today." PCMag's Matthew Buzzi says that it's "a small, versatile, upgradable, and highly affordable desktop PC with the same basic feature set as that of a much larger machine."
Built around 1.5GHz quad-core Intel Celeron J3455 processor, the NUC6CAYS can't really handle 3D gaming or 4K streaming. If those are on your wish list, look elsewhere and be prepared to spend more. But after a thorough round of benchmark and real-world testing, Burek concludes that "As a basic PC for light productivity work, Web browsing, and playback of 1080p files and streams, the NUC6CAYS is a super value."
It's also super versatile. As configured, it ships with 2 GB of memory and a 32 GB solid state drive. For many users, that delivers sufficient performance for light-duty, everyday tasks. If you want or need a bit more oomph, it's easy to access the interior, where you can add additional memory (up to about 8 GB in total) and a 2.5-inch SATA drive or SSD. The I/O line up is robust for a computer in this price/size class, and includes four USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI input, Ethernet jack, SD card slot and more. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity are built in as well. Another plus is that Intel backs the computer with an unusually long three-year warranty.
If a NUC-sized desktop computer is even too large for your needs, a stick computer might be worth considering as well. Resembling an oversized streaming stick, or a very oversized USB thumb drive, these plug into the USB port of a modern TV or monitor and transform it into a fully functional PC, more or less. Early generations of stick computers debuted to mixed feedback. Powered by Intel Atom processors, similar to those found in mobile devices such as tablets, performance was insufficient for much more than the most basic tasks, at least not when running Windows 10.
However, Intel has now debuted a Core-processor version that significantly changes the performance equation -- though at the expense of value in some reviewers' eyes. Still, the Core m3 powered Intel Compute Stick (Est. $355) earns an Editors' Choice award at PCMag.com, a Recommended rating at HotHardware.com, a spot on TechRadar.com's list of 10 best desktop computers of 2017, and generally solid reviews elsewhere.
The hardware lineup includes an Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor, 4 GB of memory and 64 GB of solid-state storage. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity are built in, as are three USB 3.0 ports (one on the device itself and two on the power adapter) and a microSD card reader. None of that screams performance system, but PCMag.com says "The Core m3–equipped Intel Compute Stick fulfills all the requirements you'd want for a PC that does real work -- in other words, it's capable of doing more than simple Web browsing and media playback."
Some reviewers question value, with ComputerShopper.com's Matt Safford saying "at close to $400, it makes sense only if you need the truly tiny form factor." Others note that while compared to previous stick computers, some of which can be had for under $100, the price could be tough to swallow, though others have a different take: "But, if you compare it with other Core m3 laptops and desktops, it's actually very reasonably priced." CNET's Dan Ackerman says. "Other PCs with the same processor typically don't get below $500 in the US, and frequently cost much more."
There is no shortage of reviewers that test and rate desktop computers and we checked in on many of them while compiling this report. Among the most helpful were the extensive, hands-on reviews we found at sites like PCMag.com, ComputerShopper.com, CNET, TechRadar.com, HotHardware.com, PCWorld and elsewhere. Not wanting to limit ourselves to enthusiast viewpoints, we also looked at the consumer-oriented reviews at ConsumerReports.org. Finally, though user feedback for newer systems is sometimes limited, we analyzed hundreds of owner reviews at sites like Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.