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Cheap desktop computers still pack plenty of punch

If you don't require computing muscle and can pass up portability, low-cost desktop PCs deliver an impressive bang for your buck. They can handle most office tasks, word processing, surfing the web, sending email, streaming video, simple graphic edits and moderate gaming, all without breaking a sweat. Most offer ample storage and a straightforward design that allows for easy repairs and upgrades. With plenty of ports and connections, you can get all the features you need and nothing you don't.

This report looks at desktop computers priced under $850. All are versatile enough to perform a variety of functions, but each has particular strengths that lead reviewers to recommend one over another for certain needs. Some are better suited for gaming. Others have a strong capacity for home business computing. There are also tiny net-top units you can attach to your TV or monitor to serve as home theaters.

Most budget desktop computers are simply stand-alone boxes. Some may ship with a keyboard and mouse, but nearly all come without a display. This works out well if you already have a monitor; you won't be paying extra. If you do need to buy one, you get to choose a model that fits your individual taste. As you'll see, several desktop computers are able to support multiple monitors, if that's your preference.

The exceptions within this desktop computer category are all-in-one computers that incorporate a built-in display and keyboard. This design and its fewer cables help minimize desktop clutter. But bear in mind that all-in-ones offer less flexibility than systems that work with separate peripherals.

To choose the best-reviewed computers, we first scour a wide range of expert sources. These include PCMag.com, CNET, PC World, Computer Shopper and other technology sites that conduct thorough testing and provide comparative results. Then we supplement the professional computer reviews with feedback from desktop computer owners who post at sites such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.

We weigh and compare each desktop computer according to key criteria that include performance, reliability, and value. The ones that measure out best and are most likely to provide the greatest satisfaction to users are identified as the best desktop computers in their category.

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