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How to Buy a Desktop PC
Does your desktop PC take so long to start up you have time to go get a cup of coffee—and drink it? Tried installing the latest game only to find out your graphics card is six generations too old to play it? Or maybe you just want to take advantage of the speed and reliability of operating systems like Microsoft Windows 8 and Mac OS X Mountain Lion. If any of these are true, then it is time for you to buy a new desktop PC. And we can help you do it.
Prices for new desktop PCs start as low as $200 and range all the way up to and over $5,000, but most of us would be more than happy with a $600- $750 box, including monitor. You still need to make some choices when it comes to CPUs, memory, hard drive capacity and graphics technology, but the good news is your money has never gone further. And a PC you buy today could very well last you for three to five years.
Back to Basics
It’s getting to the point where basic PCs are in the same price range as some tablets. While it’s certainly possible to do most of your Web surfing and video watching on a tablet, it’s often better to do real work on a desktop PC. This is especially the case when you need to view your work on a larger screen, like when you’re editing a long Word document or when you’ve got a huge spreadsheet to work on. You’ll find AMD e-class and A4/A6 processors as well as Intel Core i3 and i5 processors in inexpensive systems. If all you want to do is surf the Web, run Office apps, and do light to moderate computing duties, you should consider one of these compact systems.
You can find nettops advertised for as low as $200 without monitor. Nettops belong to a desktop category that (mostly) comes in below the $300-$500 value desktop categories, both in price and capabilities. Nettops run on the same basic components that netbooks do: low-powered processors like the Intel Atom, AMD E-series and AMD C-Series processors; non-upgradable integrated graphics; 1GB to 2GB of RAM; smaller hard drive; no optical drive (usually); and Windows 7/8, Linux operating system, or sometimes even no pre-installed OS. While nettops and netbooks are being eclipsed by tablets and other mobile systems, you’ll still find nettops and other inexpensive compact systems in big box stores and online retailers when you search for cheap PCs.
Some budget systems have a built-in screen and still can be bought for less than $500. You’ll also see quite a few nettops and compact systems aimed at the home theater crowd, some of which may be up to $600 if they include built-in Blu-ray drives. They work well in a living room because they’re silent (quiet fans); have wireless keyboards and/or mice; and have HDMI ports for connecting to HDTVs. They’re still one of the easiest ways to get IPTV services like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube on your HDTV in the living room, plus you can comfortably surf the Web from your couch on a nettop with a wireless keyboard and mouse. HD video playback on a nettop is usually smooth when playback is the only task running; but forget about multi-tasking while viewing videos: once you bring up a rich website with heavy Adobe Flash, the video quality will suffer. If you’re a more demanding multi-tasker, check out the next category.
There’s a subset of really inexpensive systems, which leverage online storage and apps replacing local storage and Windows/Mac-based applications. These systems can be an option if your world is completely online, but note that backwards compatibility with older applications is dicey, and you’ll need an always-on connection at home to use cloud-based systems like the ChromeBox effectively.
Mid-priced Desktop PCs
Sub $600 PCs used to be the bargain basement for desktops, but now they’re the norm. You should be able to find a desktop that has a recent dual-core processor and 4GB of RAM for under $600 with an LCD monitor. The dual-core processor with integrated graphics will help with the increasingly complex tasks that even casual users expect of their PCs. These include converting video from one format to another (so you can view it on your cell phone, for example), or light photo editing like removing red eye, cropping, or even recomposing the layout of a picture by adding missing people or changing colors in a shot.
You’ll sometimes find Intel Pentium dual core or AMD Athlon II processors at this price level, but lately you’ll find more powerful Intel Core i3/i5, or AMD A4/A6 processors with even more capabilities. Windows 8 and DVD burners prevail in this price range and are wise investments. Many come with hard drives of substantial capacity (250GB to 500GB). Like on ultrabooks, you’ll find SSDs and hybrid SSD/HDD combos that will speed up your work. Buy a system with an SSD if you are really impatient, but note that SSDs are still somewhat lacking in storage for heavy downloaders and graphics mavens. Some of these PCs still come in minitower cases, but the sexier ones come in small form factor cases, ultra small form factors, or better yet, mini PC form factors. These cases take up much less room on your desk than a traditional minitower, and are just as functional as their larger counterparts. Plus, a good budget PC should easily last you the next three to five years.
Multimedia and Gaming Desktops
This is where the multimedia mavens and power users shop. Look for a PC with a quad-core processor or high-speed (more than 2.6 GHz) dual-core processor, so you can edit your photos and videos quickly and easily. Don’t settle for less than 6GB to 8GB of memory and a 1TB or larger hard drive. Multi-core processors like the Intel Core i5/i7, and AMD’s A6/A8/A10 and FX-series chips are the CPUs to look for in this category.
If your multimedia projects are meant for paying clients instead of just personal photos and videos, then look for an even faster processor and more memory so you can meet your deadlines quickly. There are dual-core processors that are advertised as “quad-core class.” They are usually dual-core processors with Hyper-Threading (a technology that lets a dual-core processor handle up to four threads). Quad-core-class processors are fine at the occasional multimedia task, but if you use programs like Photoshop or work with video, moving up to a true quad-core processor will be worth it. You’ll occasionally find a six-core processor like the Intel Core i7 Extreme Edition, but those are specialized for ultimate performance and will jack up the prices significantly. You need six or more cores if you’re a hardcore gamer or graphics whiz who multi-tasks with dozens of windows spread out over multiple monitors.
Speaking of multiple monitors, dual-, triple-, and quad-monitor setups are much more common today than they once were. If you need that kind of multitasking capability, look for a system that has a discrete graphics card, so you can use the multiple video outputs on both the graphics card and the built-in graphics on the motherboard. If you need even more displays, you’ll likely have to buy more graphics cards in the future, so look for a system that has PCIe expansion slots free.
Desktops in the multimedia and gaming categories are generally more expandable than SFF PCs or nettops: you can add one or more hard drives for additional storage, one or more graphics card for faster 3D applications, multiple screen support, and one or two optical drives so you can burn DVDs or Blu-ray discs for your friends and relatives. Last but not least, PCI and PCIe card slots let you add wireless networking (Wi-Fi), TV tuners, and other cards for additional interfaces like, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, FireWire 800, or eSATA. USB 3.0 and eSATA are higher-throughput interfaces for hard drives and similar peripherals. Make sure you have at least a couple of USB 3.0 ports if you regularly backup or transfer files via hard drive.
Gamers have their own buyer’s guide here on PCMag.com, but suffice to say that fans of 3D games require a little more power from their desktops than the average user. Look for larger capacity power supply units and higher-powered discrete graphics from makers like Nvidia and AMD if you’re in the market for a desktop to primarily play games on.
An all in one PC will almost always have a screen that’s bigger than the ones on those bulky laptops. All in one PCs work equally well on tiny desks in cubicles or small studio apartments. You’ll find screens sizes from 20 inches up to 27-inch behemoths and beyond. The Apple iMac is the trend leader, but desktops like the Lenovo IdeaCentre series, Dell XPS and Inspiron One, Asus ET Series, Acer Aspire, Gateway ZX series, Sony Vaio, Samsung Series 7, and HP TouchSmart PCs merit closer looks too. Touch screens are much more usable because of Windows 8′s built in touch capability, and the touch interface makes sense for a desktop with a built-in screen. Windows 8 works OK with 5-finger touch, but look for full 10-point multitouch for the best Windows 8 experience, particularly if the screen is large enough to share.. An all in one desktop (or any desktop for that matter) works well as a “base station” for an iPod/iPhone/iPad/Tablet or even a cheaper netbook. Picture this: use the netbook, tablet, or iPad for surfing around the house and checking your Facebook, then use the desktop in your room to do the photo editing and video editing you need to do for your business presentation or for the online family photo album.
There is a downside to cheaper PCs: the specter of bloatware . Like broadcast TV and “free” cell phones, one of the reasons why the PCs are so cheap is because some other entity is subsidizing the low prices. The PC manufacturers ship their PCs with those Microsoft, Intel, or AMD stickers on the case, and there’s almost always a copy of Microsoft Office 2010 Starter on the hard drive. Companies like eBay and Wild Tangent also get prominent placement with shortcuts on the desktop and extra programs in the Start screen. The Start Screen is a better place for these programs than in desktop mode, where they look more cluttered. Things are improving as some PC makers are reducing the amount of bloatware in favor of online app stores, where you can pick and choose the programs you want, but there’s still a long ways to go for many retail desktops. Budget a couple of hours when you get the system home to clean up the extra bloatware plus another hour or two for Windows updates.
Word to the wise: When you’re trying to save money, it’s tempting to buy the cheapest PC you can find-but don’t do it. If it doesn’t have these recommended parts, you’ll wind up with something that is super slow or, worse yet, unusable within a year. That “incredible buy” may cost you more money in the long run.
By Joel Santo Domingo, PCMag