Buying Guide: Desktop Computers

 

What the best desktop computer has

  • A minimum 2 GB of memory. That's for things like web surfing, emailing, word processing and other basic computing tasks. Bumping it up to 4 GB allows for faster performance as well as reasonable multitasking. For heavy-duty graphics or gaming, you'll benefit from 6 or 8 GB of RAM. If your budget is tight when you buy, you can add RAM to many -- but not all -- desktop computers later on.
  • Enough computing power. An Intel Core i3 processor will see you through everyday tasks and handle light gaming at low resolutions. You may want to opt for Intel Core i5 or i7 if you plan on intensive multitasking and more demanding programs and games. Some less powerful desktop computers will rely on other processors, such as Celeron or earlier generation Intel Core processors.
  • Sufficient storage. Many desktop computer ship with massive 1TB or 2 TB hard drives, sufficient to store tons of photos, videos, music or other files and documents. Others will ship with a small solid-state drive. These are much faster than traditional drives, but costs limit capacity to around 256 GB or less except in very high-end systems. That means that you might want to consider an external hard drive (covered in their own report) or cloud storage to house lesser-used or larger-sized files. Some systems have hybrid storage, including a small solid-state drive for fast boot up and quick access to often used files, plus a large traditional drive for mass storage.
  • Good user support. The best manufacturer websites provide troubleshooting tips, expert feedback and diagnostic tools. A one-year warranty is typical. Extended warranties are available but might not be worth their cost, especially with a lower-priced desktop computer. Free phone support is a plus, but is often limited or not offered at all.

Know before you go

Do you want a traditional desktop computer or an all-in-one? An all-in-one is a modular desktop unit with an integrated display. They look terrific -- taking up less space and producing less cord and other clutter than traditional desktop setups. But an all-in-one computer can be pricier than a conventional desktop or sacrifice processing power for display quality. Also, you can't upgrade the monitor and can rarely upgrade components.

What extras will you need? You'll need a monitor, keyboard, mouse or trackpad, as well as cables for these unless they are wireless. Some computer systems ship with all or some of these items, but with others you are on your own. If speakers aren't provided, you'll have to supply those as well. Not all desktops come equipped with built-in optical drives, but you can connect an external optical drive or additional hard drive storage via the USB ports. The same goes for a memory card reader, too.

Is gaming a concern? If you are serious about gaming, be sure to choose your computer with that in mind. Most cheaper desktop computers rely on integrated graphics. Some have discrete graphics, but use a low-end graphics card. Some systems are upgradable at purchase -- or later by the owner -- to use more advanced graphics solutions, but that adds to the ultimate bottom line. However, all but the lowest-powered systems can handle less intense games without a hitch. If there's a specific game you know you'll want to play, check its hardware requirements before you buy.

Do you want the flexibility to upgrade your system as your needs grow? All-in-ones typically offer very limited expandability, or none at all. If you'd like to add more memory, additional hard drives, graphics cards, etc. later on, your best bet is a traditional full-sized tower. Some small form factor computers also limit expansion possibilities, but others are designed specifically to grow with the user as needs change, and some are designed for complete user customization from the start.