Generally speaking, buying a PC with a faster CPU, more RAM, and a larger hard drive today will give you a longer window before the system starts to feel obsolete. When you can, shedding extras you don’t need can save you money. And on a traditional tower PC, if you find you do need a certain component, you can always add it post-purchase.
If you want a PC you can upgrade to your heart’s content, look for a roomy system case with spare drive bays and fan-mounting points, and a motherboard with plenty of free slots. You’ll also need a 750W-plus-rated power supply unit. Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors demand a new type of motherboard, so buying into this technology now will future-proof your PC. Look for USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps support if you want to add the latest high-speed storage. Ensure you’re running a 64bit operating system, too.
several members of the Sandy Bridge processor family have been specifically designed for overclocking, denoted by a ‘K’ at the end of their product name. These chips are slightly more expensive than their non-K variants but are multiplier-unlocked, allowing for easy overclocking in the Bios. They demand a P67-chipset-based motherboard, however, which won’t support the processor’s integrated graphics. Also note that if you do wish to overclock your CPU, the standard processor cooler fitted by Intel may need to be upgraded, and you’ll require at least a 750W-rated power supply unit (PSU).
For non-K Sandy Bridge processors, an H67-chipset-based motherboard is a cheaper alternative. These motherboards are not compatible with first-generation Core-series chips, so buying into the technology now will future-proof your PC.
A sub-category of entry-level desktops, the chromebox (and its all-in-one counterpart, the chromebase) is a desktop that runs on Google’s Chrome OS. Utilizing free and paid Google cloud services to store your files, install your programs, and manage your digital life. If you spend a great portion of your computing life online, they’re a great alternative to yet another inexpensive Windows desktop, but given that they typically have scant onboard storage (think 64GB maximum of flash storage), you’ll need a good wireless connection to be able to access the cloud-based storage and apps.
Midrange desktops will stay functional longer, thanks to more CPU power and speed, memory for multitasking, storage, or a larger built-in screen. You will be making some tradeoffs compared with high-end systems, but even demanding users will be able to find a midrange system that will last them for at least five or six years. Look for a capable AMD A8 or A10 processor, or an Intel Core i5 CPU in this category, along with 8GB to 16GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive or at least 256GB solid-state-drive (SSD) storage.
General-purpose desktops, which are the kind you typically see in retail stores, are well suited to general office tasks, surfing the Internet, video conferencing, and the like. They’re designed to be a jack of all trades: good at most tasks, but rarely great at specialized functions like multimedia creation or gaming.
Performance PCs, which include multimedia machines and workstations, will give you more power for complex creative or math and scientific projects. Faster processors with four, six, or even 18 cores make quick work of your tasks. More memory (8GB to 16GB) is installed, so you can keep larger images on screen while editing a video, rendering a a 3D model, or processing a humongous spreadsheet full of numbers that you have to graph. You’ll also find extra storage in the form of large hard drives and SSDs that will let you hold a multitude of work documents and program library files.
Gaming PCs have even faster versions of the multicore processors found in the performance PCs. Plus, they have specialized 3D graphics cards, so you can smoothly view and interact with the virtual worlds that the game developers create. Flashy designs like automotive paint, multiple graphics cards viewable through Plexiglas case doors, and elaborate liquid cooling are available, for a price. Upgradability is almost (but not quite) a must have. The most expensive gaming systems are priced as much as a car, and are capable of giving you a better-than-real-life experience with multiple 1080p HD or 4K displays.
Business PCs are typically utilitarian in appearance, but offer work-friendly features, like easy serviceability and upgradability, extra security in the form of biometric sensors and Trusted Platform Module (TPM), software/hardware certification programs like Intel vPro, and software support. Some come with onsite tech support.
A PC’s processor defines how well it handles the most basic of tasks. The faster your processor, the snappier the operating system will feel and the faster you’ll be able to perform complex tasks such as photo and video editing. The more cores a processor has, the better it will be at performing multiple tasks at the same time without feeling the strain. It’ll also dramatically improve performance in programs that support multiple cores.
You’ll find a wide selection of Intel and AMD processors in this category, from the budget AMD Athlon X4 and Sempron, as well as Intel Atom and Celeron up to the slightly more expensive (and much more powerful) Intel Core i3 and i5 processor.
AMD: This company (also the parent of the GPU maker formerly known as ATI) has recently launched the second generation of A-Series accelerated processing units, previously known by the code name Trinity. Rather than CPU, or central processing unit, AMD these days uses the term APU, or accelerated processing unit, meaning that a CPU and a discrete-level GPU are combined.
Named the A4, A6, A8, and A10, these new processors claim to double the performance over the previous generation of AMD APU chips. They tend to offer slower general performance than Intel CPUs in the same price range, but better performance in 3D games. Note that far fewer desktops are available with AMD processors than Intel ones.
You may also run across AMD’s E-series chips at the very low end of the desktop spectrum.
Intel: If you’re looking at a desktop PC, chances are it has an Intel CPU in it. The current line confusingly has the same product names as the previous two generations. But the new chips, introduced in the second half of 2012, are also known by the code name Ivy Bridge (the previous generation was Sandy Bridge).
The 2012 Ivy Bridge (or third-generation) CPUs are easy to spot, as they have a part number that begins with the number 3; for example, the Intel i7-3770 CPU. A similar Sandy Bridge chip from 2011 was called the Intel Core i7-2770.
Core i3 Found in many budget desktops, this dual-core CPU is fine for everyday computing.
Core i5 Intel’s mainstream quad-core processor, found in many desktop between $600 and $1,000, as well as some more expensive, large-screen all-in-ones.
Core i7 Expect to find Intel’s flagship CPU in more expensive performance machines, although unless you’re a gamer or serious video editor, it’s unlikely you need this much power.
Pentium and Celeron — Yes, Intel still makes these lower-end chips. If at all possible, avoid desktops with these parts. Step up to a low-end Core i3 instead, even if it’s an older version.
The fastest processor in the new series is the 3.4GHz Core-i7-2600K. At 3.3GHz, the Core i5-2500K offers a slightly lower specification. It has no support for hyperthreading and 6MB rather than 8MB of level 3 cache. Both chips are also available in cheaper non-K versions that don’t offer the same overclocking potential.
Turbo Boost technology allows a processor to overclock a single core (or all four when used with a ‘K’ processor and a P67 motherboard) when the system is under load.
The more cores a processor has, the more able it is to multitask and run intensive multithreaded applications such as video editing. All the chips in the Sandy Bridge family are quad-core, as are the older Core i5-700-, -800- and -900-series CPUs. Of the older chips, dual-core processors such as the i5-600 series tend to have higher clock speeds, and thus will perform better when working with single-threaded applications. Single-core processors will be noticeably slower.
For budget desktop PCs, good value can still be had by older Intel Core-series CPUs, such as the Core i7-950 and -870, and Core i5-760. AMD also offers quad-core processors, but none can currently keep up with Intel’s latest offerings.
You should look for at least 4GB of system memory. 16GB of eMMC flash storage is found on the least expensive desktop, but 64GB of flash storage or a 500GB hard drive is a better option for most users.
Sandy Bridge PCs should come with at least 8GB. For the PC to access more than 4GB of memory, and for systems running dual-graphics setups, you’ll also need to be running a 64bit operating system.
Sandy Bridge processors and the Core i5-700- and 800-series chips require DDR3 RAM, while older chips can use less expensive DDR2. The triple-channel architecture of the Core i7-900-series processors requires you to install memory chips in threes (3GB or 6GB, for example), but Core i7-800- and -2000-series CPUs use a two-channel system. DDR3 memory is getting cheaper and bodes well for performance.
If you plan to upgrade the memory later, check how many slots are free on the motherboard. If, for example, a PC vendor has installed four 1GB sticks of RAM, thus occupying all four of the motherboard’s memory slots, an upgrade will be more expensive than if it had installed two 2GB sticks – in our example you would need to replace your existing memory rather than add to it.
Hard drives and storage: Your new desktop is going to have either a traditional spinning-platter hard drive (HDD), or a solid-state hard drive (SSD), which is flash memory, similar to what you’d find in an iPhone or an SD card. We’ve also seen a few examples of hybrid drives, where a small SSD (perhaps 20GB or 32GB) is paired with a larger HDD. In theory, this lets the system boot faster and helps apps open quickly, but stores bulky music and video files on the standard hard drive.
HDD Found in the vast majority of desktops, platter hard drives are large and inexpensive. Look for at least a 500GB hard drive, even in a budget system. Most drives run at 7,200rpm (revolutions per minute), but some run more slowly, at 5,400rpm. You won’t really notice a difference in day-to-day PC use, but you will appreciate a faster hard drive when you transfer large files around or when you want to load a game or render a video file.
SSD These drives are much faster than traditional mechanical hard drives, but they’re also much more expensive, with smaller capacities. You can usually find them as optional features in higher-end customizable PCs.
Backing up your files to an portable hard drives or network storage is essential: 1TB is a lot of information to lose in one go if your drive should fail. Alternatively, consider mirroring a pair of internal drives, although noise levels will increase.
Adding a second hard drive is one of the simplest upgrades you can undertake. If you wish to do so internally, check the system case has a spare drive bay available. Some system cases offer a top-mounted SATA port for fast docking of a hard drive, while external drives can quickly and easily be added via USB.
For compatibility with the latest high-speed storage, check that the motherboard offers support for USB 3.0 and SATA 6 gigabits per second (Gbps).
Frequently asked questions
What kind of ports and extras do I need? A couple of USB ports are a minimum. Most desktops now include at least two USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than the older USB 2.0 version, but only when used with compatible USB 3.0 devices, such as external hard drives.
For all-in-ones, many models, but not all, will include an HDMI input. This is a great feature that allows you to connect an external video component, such as a cable box or a game console, to your all-in-one to use it as a second display. With an HDMI input, you can turn your all-in-one into a true home media hub, which is a convenient option in space-constrained rooms such as a den, a bedroom, or a home office.
What kinds of ports and extras can I skip? DisplayPort for video or Thunderbolt (another high-speed data connection) are needed only if you have compatible hardware. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are both potentially useful, not to mention tidy, but they’re not crucial given the desktop’s stationary nature (assuming, of course, that the PC will be near an Ethernet port for Internet access).
Do I need an optical drive? The answer is starting to trend toward “no,” and a few all-in-ones have gone without. Some people are definitely still tied to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs as storage or media playback formats. And while you may have legacy software that’s available only on disc, almost every current application is available for download, minimizing the need for optical drives going forward. Note that you can also add an external USB-powered DVD drive to any PC.
Do I need a graphics card? Unless you plan on playing serious PC games on your desktop (Skyrim, Battlefield 3, and so forth), you can get away with using the graphics capabilities built into desktops by default. Intel’s current version is called HD 4000, and while it’s not for serious gamers, you should be able to get away with playing casual or older games, or even newer games such as Diablo III if you keep the visual settings set to “low.”
Shouldn’t I just get a laptop or a tablet instead? If all you’re doing with your desktop is watching Netflix movies, reading online news, and playing Bejeweled, a tablet can make sense. And if you fall into the general-purpose user category outlined above, you can often get away with a laptop.
The advantages of a desktop are larger hard-drive space, full-speed CPU and graphics cards, and, for towers especially, expandability and the ability to replace components yourself. Desktops also make sense for those who want to prevent user mobility.
What’s better, Windows or Mac OS X? A loaded question. Windows users appreciate the flexibility of that operating system, allowing for extreme tweaking and personalization. It’s also available on a nearly limitless variety of hardware. Apple’s operating system, on the other hand, is available only on a handful of desktops and laptops. That said, the joint hardware/software platform makes for a much more stable/predictable overall experience, and many prefer the user-friendly OS X layout and controls. Finally, Windows has a much larger available software library, especially when it comes to free software and games.
Windows 10Free at Amazon is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system. Desktops with Win 10 and previous versions are what most people typically use, so you’ll be assured of the best compatibility and widest selection of third-party software. This also applies to browser plugins, since some only work with Windows.
Apple’s OS X is currently up to version 10.11 (El Capitan). It’s a great choice if you’re already in an Apple-centric household, since it interfaces seamlessly with devices like iPads, iPhones, and with all your iTunes purchases and subscriptions.
Chrome OS has the best buzz of the alternative desktop operating systems, since it essentially runs the Chrome browser on desktop PC hardware. You’ll need to use always-on Internet service for the best results from this cloud-based ecosystem, but homebound desktops are usually connected 24/7.
Desktops with Android and Linux are harder to finder, particularly in retail configurations, but both have their merits. Android lets you use more than two million apps, but in practice many have scaling issues on desktop screens, and you’ll definitely run into problems with the lack of an accelerometer while controlling some games.
While it has its fans, Linux is more of a do-it-yourself operating system, where you’ll have to rely on your own faculties for installation, sourcing programs, and support. Chrome OS, OS X, and Windows are certainly easier choices if you simply want to buy a desktop and use it right away.
The display is often overlooked by PC vendors wanting to curtail costs. However, it’s the component you’ll spend most of your time looking at, and is even more important if you do a lot of photo or video editing. Quality varies hugely among screens, and it’s not only the size and resolution you need to consider. Also investigate viewing angles, whether the screen offers height, tilt and pivot adjustments, the pixel pitch, the response rate (8ms or below will minimise blur on fast-moving action), brightness and contrast. Where possible, it’s a good idea to see the screen in person before you buy.
Most desktop PCs now come with full-HD (1920×1080-pixel) flat-panel displays, although the less you pay for your PC the smaller the screen tends to be. Aim for a 21.5in model with a budget PC, and around 25in with a system costing more than £1,000. Be advised that manufacturers often round up their figures for advertising purposes – a 21.5in screen becomes 22in, and a 23.6in screen becomes 24in, for example.
A 25in full-HD screen will not only provide a better experience when watching videos, playing games and working with spreadsheets than a 21.5in model, but it will also render text and icons slightly larger.
If you want to hook up a games console or projector, look for a screen with dual analogue and digital inputs. VGA is an analogue connection, while DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort are three types of digital connection.
Models with LED backlighting aren’t necessarily better, but can offer improved contrast, lower power consumption and a thinner, more desirable design.
If you have no interest in playing games, Intel’s Core i3 and i5 CPUs come with integrated graphics processors that deliver around double the performance of older Intel integrated solutions. Sandy Bridge chips are even faster and offer features such as dual-monitor outputs. These machines support HD video and Windows’ Aero effects without the need for a separate graphics card.
AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 5450 is a popular choice for a budget machine. It doesn’t offer a great speed advantage over Intel GMA integrated graphics, but it adds support for DirectX 11.0. If you really want to play games, nVidia’s GeForce GT 240 will provide some extra speed. Be prepared to lower your graphics settings to achieve smooth gameplay, however.
If gaming is important to you and you’re prepared to spend a little more on your PC, look for an ATI Radeon HD 6870 or Geforce GTX 460. In a gamer-friendly system, aim for an ATI Radeon HD 6970 or nVidia GeForce GTX 580.
nVidia cards offer support for realistic object interactions in games supporting PhysX and are able to display 3D content. Recent ATI cards can also be connected to multiple displays. Look out for pre-overclocked graphics cards, as well as those that come with custom cooling solutions.
Many nVidia and ATI graphics cards can be upgraded to dual-card setups later. To take advantage of this, your motherboard and power supply must be compatible. However, the current crop of motherboards which support the new Sandy Bridge processors have only limited support for multiple graphics cards, so buy the fastest single card you can afford. A single-card setup leaves more space for sound cards or TV tuners.
If you’re looking for a gaming machine, though, processor speed is not the most important factor that will define its in-game performance. It’s your graphics card that will handle the visuals for your games. You’ll ideally want to have discrete graphics cards, forgoing the onboard graphics capabilities of their CPUs.
You can get some very capable graphics cards in a system costing less than £700, all of which can be expected to play all of today’s modern games at Full HD resolution. Whether you’re able to crank up the eye candy to the max depends on what card your system has. The upper mid-tier cards such as the Nvidia GeForce 760 and AMD Radeon R7 265 and upwards have the power to run the latest games at their highest settings, while those beneath them may sacrifice some fidelity to maintain a consistent frame rate of more than 30fps in the toughest games such as Crysis 3. If you’re not cost-constrained, spending more on a system with a more powerful graphics card such as the AMD Radeon R9 290 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 can see you playing the latest titles at 4K resolutions.
With no power-hungry components installed, a budget PC needs only a basic PSU. A 450W or 500W model is a good starting point.
For all other systems, the level of power you require will depend on the graphics card you want to use. Look for at least a 500W unit or 750W-plus if you plan to add another card or overclock the CPU.
Get a model with a full set of SATA and PCI Express connectors to make later upgrades easier.