All-in-one desktop computers are sleek and sophisticated, while traditional tower desktop computers are not. But if great looks aren't as important as a computer that's easier to upgrade (especially after the sale) and that offers more bang for the buck (even if you need to budget extra for a monitor), a tower-type desktop may be what's right for you.
On the low end of the scale, there are tons of sub-$700 towers on the market. In this budget computer category, we favor the HP Pavilion 500 (Est. $500 and up) for its balance of value and performance. It's covered in more depth when we discuss cheap desktop computers.
If you can spend a little more, the Asus M51AC (Est. $750 and up) is worth considering. This oh-so traditional tower can't be customized pre-purchase, but it comes in a dizzying array of pre-configured and constantly changing models that are sold through traditional retail channels.
Keeping in mind that reviewers look at widely different systems, with different price points and features, feedback is generally strong. Solid recommendations are offered by several experts, including an Editors' Choice at DigitalTrends.com. "The Asus M51 isn't going to bring desktops back into style, but if you're looking for an old-fashioned tower with great bang-for-your-buck and a solid feature set, this could be the PC for you," Matt Smith says.
PCMag.com doesn't bestow any awards, but grants a 4-star (excellent) rating. The site looks at a higher-end configuration that costs around $1,000 at the time of its review. It features a 4th generation Core i7 processor, Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 graphics (with 1 GB of dedicated memory), 8 GB of RAM and a 2 TB hard drive. Performance lags behind some similar systems, says Brian Westover, but the compromises are minor in light of the Asus M51AC's price.
Outside the case, connectivity is abundant, including 10 USB ports scattered between the front and back (six USB 3.0, four USB 2.0), a legacy PS/2 port, a full complement of digital and analog video outputs (VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort) and more. Also built in are a memory card reader and Blu-ray drive. Unusual extras include a wireless charging tray (for Qi-compatible mobile devices) and a Universal Storage Module slot for compatible mass-storage devices. A keyboard and mouse are included, but a monitor is not.
A big advantage, so to speak, with traditional tower desktop computers is their larger enclosures (compared with all-in-ones). That approach sacrifices style but makes future expansion or upgrades relatively easy. The M51AC reviewed by PCMag.com is a perfect example of that. The 8 GB of memory in PCMag.com's test unit occupy just one of four available memory slots. There's a bay for a second hard drive (up to 2 TB). Several expansion slots for cards are provided, as is a 500-watt power supply that's beefy enough to support higher performance add-ons and upgrades, within reason. Note, however, that the then-available $700 Core i5 powered configuration tested by DigitalTrends.com offered less upgrade potential -- most notably just a single unused PCIe slot, and it had limited clearance. If this, or any of the features discussed above, is a must-have, check the spec sheet of the Asus M51AC configuration you pick out to make sure they are part of the package.
Need something a little more powerful, but not quite ready to move on to a high-end gaming rig? (And if you are, we cover those in the section on gaming computers.) The Dell XPS 8700 Special Edition (Est. $1,350 and up) should get some consideration. It doesn't pull down any awards, but is still well regarded by most reviewers who have covered it. PCMag.com says that "the Dell XPS 8700 Special Edition desktop PC will do the trick whether you're looking to edit video, clean up photos, or enjoy some games, making it a great all-around performer."
ComputerShopper.com has a few more gripes, noting that expansion options are surprisingly limited given the spaciousness of the chassis in the configuration it tests, but points out that the XPS 8700 Special Edition does a "fine job" of fitting in between "basic" towers such as the Asus M51AC and "hardcore gaming rigs" from Falcon Northwest, Alienware and others. "If you opt for the XPS 8700 Special Edition, you'll likely sleep well knowing you got a fair price on a good system," William Van Winkle concludes.
Even the base system is serious business. It includes a 4th generation Intel Core i7, 16 GB of memory, a 32 GB solid-state cache drive, a 7,200 rpm 2 TB hard drive, DVD burner, and AMD Radeon HD R9 270 graphics with 2 GB of video memory. Note that reviews look at the Dell XPS 8700 Special Edition with Nvidia GeForce GTX 660, which is only slightly less powerful on paper and in most testing. A step-up configuration (Est. $1,800) replaces the DVD burner with a Blu-ray drive, ups memory to 24 GB, replaces the cache drive with a bootable 256 GB solid-state drive, and replaces integrated sound with a discrete Sound Blaster Recon3D sound card. The top configuration (Est. $2,000) boosts the hard drive to 3 TB and memory to 32 GB.
Not surprisingly, the XPS 8700 Special Edition is festooned with ports. There are 11 USB ports (six are USB 3.0), including one on the top (adjacent to a tray) that's intended for charging mobile devices even when the computer is off. There are also HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs and a 7.1-channel analog audio output. The media card reader supports 19 formats. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built in.