How to Choose the Right Desktop PC
Why, given the advanced state of laptops, would you want to buy a desktop PC or Mac nowadays? Simply put: sheer muscle and computing comfort. Mobile devices like laptops and tablets simply can’t fill some computing needs as well as the stalwart desktop.
Desktop-class CPUs and graphics processors are more powerful than their mobile counterparts for the same money. They give you the grunt to finish whatever task you’re working on in less time. Your money goes further with desktop components in general, too, so instead of buying a $500 laptop with a competent Intel Core i3 processor, you can buy a $500 desktop with a more powerful Intel Core i5 desktop CPU in it and maybe even squeeze in a dedicated graphics card.
You can get desktops with screens that are already built in (see our guide to the best all-in-one PCs), or they can be connected externally to a monitor. In either case, you’ll get a bigger display than even the largest desktop-replacement laptop, which tops out at about 18 inches in screen size. Another plus is that expandable desktops can accommodate multiple graphics cards to support sky-high frame rates for competitive gaming or powering through the latest titles on super-fine 4K displays.
For some sensitive situations, buying a desktop gives you physical control of the computer and its use. Limiting access to desktop PCs lets you control who sees confidential business data, and the combination of a desktop PC and a large screen means that parents can monitor what their children are doing online via a quick glance across the room.
Which OS: Windows 10, macOS, or “Other”?
The Mac vs. PC debate is one of the oldest in modern technology, and we’re not going to pick a side here. But if you’re of an open mind, not wedded to one or the other by years of habit, and are considering a switch, here’s a quick rundown of your choices.
Windows 10($139.99 at Amazon) is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system. Desktops that use it and previous versions of the OS are what most people typically rely on, so you’ll be assured of the best compatibility and widest selection of third-party software. This also applies to browser plug-ins, since some only work with Windows.
Apple’s macOS is an excellent choice if you’re already in an Apple-centric household. It interfaces seamlessly with devices like iPads and iPhones, with all your iTunes purchases and subscriptions, and lets you receive iMessages on any device connected to your iCloud account.
Although it’s less prevalent than Windows or macOS in desktop PCs, Google also has its own PC operating system, called Chrome OS. Many apps designed for Windows and macOS also have Chrome OS versions now, including the popular Microsoft Office suite. Many Chrome OS-powered PCs can also run any Android-based app available for download from the Google Play store, which means the OS can now run millions of smartphone apps. Laptops running Chrome OS, dubbed Chromebooks, are easy to come by, but desktops running the OS (“Chromeboxes”) are less common. Most of them are tiny, inexpensive PCs with small amounts of memory and storage.
While it has many 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, macOS, and Windows are certainly easier choices if you simply want to buy a desktop and use it right away.
How Much Desktop Do You Need?
If all you need to do is surf the internet, write Word documents, or make simple spreadsheets, then an entry-level desktop is the way to go. You will have to make some compromises in terms of graphics, power, RAM, and storage compared with higher-end systems, but then again, you won’t be paying as much, as entry-level PCs typically cost less than $600.
You’ll find a wide selection of Intel and AMD processors in this category, from the budget Intel Celeron and Pentium CPUs, up to the more expensive (and more powerful) Intel Core i3 or i5 and AMD Ryzen 3 or Ryzen 5 processors. You should look for at least 8GB of RAM, though you might have to make do with 4GB if you’re limiting your search to very compact, extreme-budget sub-$300 machines. As for storage, a paltry 32GB of eMMC flash storage is found on the absolute least-expensive desktops. (These are all compact budget models, usually far smaller than a laptop.) But a 1TB hard drive is more prevalent as a baseline for larger desktops and a better option for most users.
Midrange desktops will stay functional longer, thanks to more CPU power and speed, more memory for multitasking, roomier storage, or a larger built-in screen. You will have to make some sacrifices, but even demanding users will be able to find a midrange system that will last them at least five years. Look for a capable Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 processor in this class of machine, along with 8GB to 16GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive or 256GB solid-state-drive (SSD) storage. Some machines will offer both an SSD and a hard drive, with the SSD as the boot/program drive and the hard drive destined for mass storage. This is an ideal arrangement for people with large media collections.
High-end desktops offer top-of-the-line components, such as the latest CPUs that will give you all the power you need for multimedia projects, loads of storage (a 512GB SSD or a 1TB hard drive, but typically 2TB or more, sometimes in an SSD-and-hard-drive combination), 3D graphics capability for gaming, or a combination of all three. These high-performance machines typically start at $1,500, and can go up to $5,000 and beyond for workstations or gaming rigs with customized paint jobs and multiple GPUs. Expect to see Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 CPUs in the lower tiers here, and the very highest end populated by systems based on Intel Core i9 or AMD Ryzen 9 processors.
While sticking to one of the three price ranges, we recommend that you buy just a little more than you need for the tasks you do now, if you can. That way, you future-proof your purchase and won’t have to shop for a replacement for a while.
See How We Test Desktops
What Do You Need to Do?
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 jacks-of-all-trades: good at most tasks, but rarely great at specialized functions such as 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 RAM (16GB to 64GB) is installed, so you can keep larger images in memory for fast transformations while editing a video, rendering a 3D model, or processing a gigantic spreadsheet full of numbers 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.
Workstations are specialized machines made to do the heavy lifting of high-end media creation, scientific calculations, and strenuous work tasks that have razor-thin deadlines. You’ll find multicore Intel Xeon processors and ISV-certified graphics solutions from AMD and Nvidia in this category, as well as the potential, in some cases, to install enormous amounts of special error-correcting (ECC) memory in excess of 64GB.
Business PCs are typically utilitarian in appearance, but they offer work-friendly features such as easy serviceability and upgradability, extra security in the form of biometric sensors and Trusted Platform Module (TPM) support, software/hardware certification programs such as Intel vPro, and software support. Some come with onsite tech support.
Gaming PCs have even faster versions of the multicore processors found in the performance PCs. Plus, they have dedicated graphics cards, so you can smoothly view and interact with the virtual worlds that the game developers create. Flashy design elements like automotive paint, multiple graphics cards viewable through clear plastic or glass case doors, and elaborate liquid-cooling setups are available, for a price. In earlier years, these kinds of options were typically only available from boutique PC makers such as Digital Storm, Maingear, and Origin PC, but many have filtered down into configurations from the major makers.
Also, in gaming PCs, upgradability is almost (but not quite) a must-have. The most expensive gaming systems can cost upward of $10,000, capable of giving you the ultimate gaming experience possible on a PC with multiple 1080p HD or 4K displays, or when using a VR headset. That said, even midrange gaming systems today in the low $1,000s can deliver a very satisfactory gaming experience with a single 1080p monitor or a VR headset.
Sizing Up (or Down) the Chassis
Desktops are no longer the uniform metal boxes that they used to be. Even certain relatively tiny PCs today can have built-in components that rival high-performance PCs of years past. Choosing one these days is a matter of space constraints and purpose.
If you live or work in truly cramped quarters, an ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) or small-form-factor (SFF) desktop is what you need. USFF (or mini) PCs take up the least amount of room, but don’t have much expandability, if any at all. Even so, they contain a processor, memory, storage, and ports to hook up displays, keyboards, and mice. They are usually the most economical to buy and run, since they use power-saving components and processors. The total volume of one of these systems is rarely larger than that of a small jewelry box.
In recent years, we’ve seen PCs not much larger than USB flash drives, like the Intel Compute Stick. These have the benefit of disappearing behind an HDMI-equipped monitor or HDTV. You may be limited to one or two configurations and will have to give up expandability and I/O port selection, but stick PCs and slightly larger mini desktops, like those in the Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) series and their ilk, are the most flexible way to play internet streaming media and access cloud computing in your living room or conference room.
SFF desktops have more internal space, allowing you to attach additional hard drives and possibly even a gaming-grade graphics card. You’ll also find more powerful CPUs here, with their more strenuous cooling requirements.
Traditional tower desktops, including mini, midsize, and full-size towers, have the most internal space, so you can install multiple hard drives, more RAM, or multiple graphics cards, depending on your needs. They are the most flexible, but also the bulkiest.
An all-in-one (AIO) desktop will save you some space, since the display is built in. With a few exceptions for business-oriented all-in-ones, you will give up expandability compared with the traditional desktop, however. Most AIO screens come in sizes from 22 to 34 inches, and the top models support up to a 5K (5,120-by-2,880-pixel) native resolution. A 1,920-by-1,080-pixel screen is the mainstream-AIO norm, however, and some outliers have widescreen designs with resolutions that lie between 2,560 by 1,440 pixels and 4K (3,840 by 2,160).
Ready for Our Recommendations?
We review hundreds of PCs every year at PC Labs, evaluating their features and testing their performance against peers in their respective categories. That way, you’ll know which are best suited for gaming, which is our favorite general-purpose all-in-one, and which is the best if all you need is a small, powerful system you can get up and running quickly.
We pull from our full range of desktop reviews for the frequently updated list below, and we include top-rated models from as many categories as possible. These are our current favorites, but for a full feed of all of our very latest desktop reviews, check out our desktops product guide.