We purchase every product we review with our own funds—we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Desktop computers may not seem as critical a tool as they were fifteen, twenty years ago, but they’re still important. They’re just important in a different way. With the advances in mobile technology and laptops, we’re using our desktop computers for more specific tasks. They’re no longer our sole source of computing.
This means that when shopping for a new desktop computer, we need to look for different things than before. With cloud storage in use in many ways, memory is no longer as important as it once was. Optical drives are even less important as they once were, and sometimes aren’t even included in today’s machines.
So, what is important now? That really depends on how you will be using your computer, whether you’re using it mostly as a base for your laptop or mobile devices, or if you’re still sitting behind your desktop for at least a few hours every day working, communicating, browsing, playing games, or watching and listening to media.
At BestReviews, our mission is to supply you with enough information to make an informed purchasing decision. We put products through rigorous testing, analyze feedback from current owners, and consult with experts. We never accept free products from manufacturers, so you can count on our recommendations to be unbiased.
In this guide we’ll examine the different things you need to look for when shopping for a desktop computer.
You can start by checking out the five computers listed above, to see if they have what you’re looking for.
If not, follow along with this guide, and learn how to compare and contrast your own selections.
Matthew has led IT departments and tech teams in a variety of industries. Currently, he works in the sports gaming industry. He has written reviews and been involved with electronics procurement decisions for a number of players at the business and individual level for over a decade. In his spare time, you may find Matthew playing frisbee, golf, or reading a good novel.
The operating system, or more informally “OS,” will always be a bone of contention among computer users. While there are some who use multiple OS and others who have been known to switch allegiances, for the most part each user tends to have a favorite OS.
While there are others, there are three main operating systems found in desktop computers.
Microsoft Windows has been around for more than thirty years, through several different iterations. At one time it was used by most computer users, but that number has been slowly declining. Because of its popularity, it may still be the operating system most often targeted by hackers.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Dell Inspiron 24 3000 Series All-In-One
This all-in-one is a great choice if you plan to use it for watching or listening to media. It starts with an Intel processor, engineered for stunning graphics. On top of that, the Inspiron also features a wide viewing angle display and built-in stereo speakers. It provides plenty of storage space for downloading all your favorite movies and music.
macOS is the predecessor of the other operating systems, and most computer aficionados either love it or hate it. Many times the attachment to the actual OS is secondary to a user’s allegiance with the Apple ecosystem and culture. The problem with choosing this OS is that the hardware associated with it is usually more expensive than others.
Linux is free and open source, and there are many derivatives of it, called distributions or distros. Ubuntu and Debian are two of the most popular. Since it’s not used by as many people as Windows or macOS, systems running Linux tend to be virus-free, since those who write viruses look to affect as many people as possible.
Settling on a preferred OS helps you narrow down which computer to get. All computers come with one OS or another pre-loaded, but many times there’s an option to load and run a different OS, or even run two of them in a dual boot.
PCs, that is to say a computer with Windows or Linux, are almost always cheaper than an Apple computer. Some people argue that the higher price doesn’t mean Apple computers are better; you’re paying to some extent for the name.
Assuming that you’ve already examined how you will use a new desktop, and decided on an OS, the next thing to consider is whether you want what is basically just a hard drive, or if you’d prefer an all-in-one.
Several desktop computers are offered without the monitor, keyboard, and mouse, allowing you to put together your own system. They’re basically just a hard drive.
This can be useful if you already have those other items, or if you want to have specific components, such as a wireless keyboard, a wireless mouse, or a particular monitor.
An all-in-one is just what it sounds like. When you buy this computer, you buy all those pieces together: hard drive, monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and the hard drive is built into the back of the monitor.
While an all-in-one is more convenient, it’s also less flexible, not allowing you to make changes to separate components.
There are features that you need to have in your desktop computer. You must have a processor, memory (RAM), hard drive, and external ports. These are the common items between something like a Mac Mini — which is just basically a hard drive — an entire system, and an all-in-one.
Look for two factors in a computer hard drive: capacity, in terms of storage, and speed. Once again, these are factors that are constantly changing.
The capacity, or storage, will be measured in either gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB). This will be the unformatted capacity. Once you format your system, the operating system takes up some of that space, so you’ll actually have a little less than advertised.
Storage space always matters in your purchase, but how much you need can depend on what you’re storing. If you use cloud storage, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, or other services, you won’t need as much space on your hard drive for your photos and documents.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Dell Inspiron 24 3000 Series All-In-One
With this all-in-one desktop computer, you won’t need to look any further – it’s a complete package with an easy setup. For just one price you get a quality system that includes a hard drive, monitor, webcam, wireless keyboard, and wireless mouse. Even though it’s an all-in-one, you have plenty of options for expansion with multiple USB ports, HDMI, a multi-card reader, and Ethernet capabilities.
Like processors, RAM is important for performance. All the same things apply here. What you will be doing with the computer plays an important part in how much RAM you need, and it’s also a factor that is constantly changing and being updated.
However, there are two things to keep in mind. A good idea before buying a new computer is to check how much memory you need for the applications that you use or will be using. Make sure you get more memory than your applications need. That way you’ll be sure to have enough, won’t be putting a strain on your memory, and will hopefully have enough for future applications you may buy or download.
The other thing to keep in mind is that often there are options for memory expansion. Once your performance slows down, instead of buying a new computer, you may decide to just give your current system more memory. Be sure to check if the memory in the desktop you are buying can be expanded, and the maximum memory the motherboard can support.
Be careful when opting in to extended warranties. Many users replace their computers after two to three years. Paying for warranty coverage past your use date is frustrating.
As our expert Matthew Helm pointed out, "You can save yourself a lot of money if you research the specific processing power of each machine, depending on what you’re trying to use it for."
A processor, or CPU, is indeed integral, but the size or power you need depends on what you will be doing. It can be a difficult category to keep up with, as processors are constantly changing and being updated.
But a little applied common sense tells you that you don’t need a very large or fast processor If your desktop computer is just a hub for your mobiles, or if you’re doing minimal computing, such as emails, social networks, and Internet browsing.
However, if you’re doing anything performance-related, such as gaming or streaming media content, you’ll want a faster or larger processor so that the performance is smoother.
Desktop computers are often less expensive than comparable laptops. They’re also usually cheaper to repair, and the need for a more permanent work area can lead to a better physical environment.
Likewise, if you stream your entertainment, such as music or videos, and don’t actually store it on your hard drive, you obviously won’t need hard drive capacity for it.
What you will need space for is your system, your utilities, your applications, and data files you don’t store in a cloud service.
Speed will be identified in terms of how quickly the drive spins, or the rpm. Unless you do significant database operations, computer aided design, or media-intense gaming, the hard drive’s speed isn’t as critical a factor as storage capacity.
Additionally, some desktop computers now come with solid state drives or SSDs. These drives offer faster performance, but less overall storage space. They’re generally more expensive as well.
Refurbished desktop computers can be a great deal, if they come from a reputable source, with a solid return policy. They’re usually priced considerably lower, and many times they still include a warranty.
External ports, such as USB ports, are one item that have become more important with the advance of mobile devices. Not only do we have a need to plug peripherals in, we also have a need to plug our mobile devices in, for updating, uploading/downloading, or charging.
The number of USB ports you need depends on how many items will be plugged in, of course. Your peripherals, such as wired versions of a printer, keyboard, and mouse, are integral. But there can also be external drives, game controllers, or other peripherals. Additionally, if you make use of flash drives, those also need to plug into USBs, as well as however many mobile devices you are connecting at any one time.
Additionally, desktop computers can be equipped with other ports, such as HDMI, FireWire, SATA and Thunderbolt. Whether or not you need these will depend on whether or not your peripherals need them.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
The entry-level Asus Chromebox desktop computer sells for an appealingly low price. Strictly speaking, you don’t even need to add a monitor; you could theoretically plug it into your HDTV via an HDMI cable. However, we assume that most people looking for a budget desktop computer want something that can stand alone. Even then, adding a keyboard, mouse, and basic 19-inch monitor would only cost you around an extra $100, and many satisfied owners tell us that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Once you’ve satisfied the necessary features on a desktop computer, there are other options to consider for your computing experience, such as optical drives, video cards, and monitors.
Most off-the-shelf computers come with a video card already installed. Check whether the video card is integrated with the motherboard (IDE) or replaceable. An upgraded card isn’t necessary for every user; a high-performance card is more important for those who do graphics-intensive gaming, graphic design, or computer aided design (CAD).
The positives of leasing a computer rather than buying one include cheaper monthly payments, no worries about it becoming outdated, and quick replacement. However, there are negatives. The total payments sometimes end up to be more than the price of the equipment. You may not be able to update when you want, and you’re stuck paying for through the lease, even if you stop using it.
Not too long ago, not having an optical drive of some type in a computer was unthinkable. But with the advances in technology, namely the internet, cloud storage, and streaming, they’re no longer the necessary component they once were.
Those who still play media from CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays will still have the need for an optical drive.
If an optical drive isn’t included in the desktop computer that you are buying, there are always external optical drives. Just remember that an external drive will take up one of your ports.
Want a bargain on a desktop computer? Retailers often offer discounts on display models.
It seems a little silly to mention monitors, keyboards, and mice as options, but as mentioned earlier, they aren’t always included. Sometimes you don't get much more than a hard drive with ports, and it’s up to you to build the rest.
But if you are buying a complete system or an all-in-one, these three items will be included. There isn’t much to take into consideration with the keyboard and mouse, other than if you want wireless or wired. Again, there are exceptions for those with speciality usage in mind: gamers tend to prefer high-performance mice, and some graphic designers prefer a trackball or other specialty mouse.
When considering monitors, make sure the screen size is adequate, along with the resolution. As with video cards, some of it will depend on what you’re planning to do with your desktop computer. Ensure you have a higher resolution if you’re doing anything graphics intensive, such as gaming or graphic design, or if you intend to stream a lot of movies or television shows.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
The Asus runs Google’s increasingly popular Chrome operating system. This OS is aimed at users who spend a lot of time browsing the internet or accessing cloud-based software (Google Docs, for example). The Asus will also run Ubuntu Linux, but this systems is not as easy to install and would probably only interest those with specialist knowledge.
As Matthew Helm has said, "You shouldn't buy a computer based on price alone, but price is obviously an important part of the equation."
In some ways it can be very much a “You get what you pay for” type of situation. If you buy the cheapest computer you can find, you’ll get likely get slower performance, smaller screens, less hard drive space, and few bells and whistles.
However, buying the most expensive computer isn’t necessarily going to get you the best result either. As Helm says, it’s just part of the equation. All of the above-mentioned items need to be taken into consideration, along with the price.
While a slow computer often makes you think it’s time for a new one, that isn’t necessarily so. Research the possible causes for degrading performance first. Often it can be an easy fix, such as cleaning out the hard drive.
Complicating the process even more is that you’re looking at a range in price between $300 and $3,500, generally. There’s a lot of room in there. And remember that sometimes you’re not getting a complete system, but just basically the hard drive.
In that case, after your initial purchase, you still have to pay for the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and any other options that you may want.
For general home or business use of a computer, look to spend between $500 for the most basic use and $2,000 for more intensive use.
Q. What is a “mini PC?” Does this mean it’s smaller, or that it will do less?
A. A mini PC, also called a miniature PC, is smaller, cheaper, less powerful, and is meant for only doing basic computing such as surfing the internet, word processing, emailing, and audio/video playback.
Q. What is a “stick computer?”
A. Stick computers resemble flash drives, but actually plug directly into an HDMI port on a television set or monitor. However, they operate independently; they don’t rely on another computer. Some are meant to play visual or audio playback, such as a Fire TV Stick, and some can be a complete system, if you add a keyboard and mouse.
Q. I’ve heard that desktop computers are better for gaming than laptops. Is that true?
A. While it’s great to use a laptop for the portability, it’s not always as portable as it should be. To have everything a good gaming system needs, a laptop can be too heavy and bulky.
Q. How long will a desktop computer last before I need to replace it?
A. Desktop computers in general will last four or five years before they need to be replaced, which is longer than laptops — these can have as short of a lifespan as three years.
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At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.