Types of Desktop Computers
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.
How much computer do you really need?
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.
Keeping up with the vendors
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.
Finding the best desktop computer
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.
This HP AIO will cause lots of "Envy"
Among all-in-one computers, we see a bit of a consensus
forming around the (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
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 (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 (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
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.
A Dell tower computer that's something "special"
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 (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
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
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 (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 your budget and needs are modest, this mini desktop could be your
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
Among those, we've seen a couple of very strong reviews for
the (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 (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
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."
Expert & User Review Sources
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.