How to Choose the Right Desktop PC
Smartphones are ubiquitous and astonishingly capable. Snazzy, innovative laptop designs are constantly evolving. So where does that leave the venerable desktop PC? You’ll find plenty of them for sale, to be sure, and innovation never stops in the desktop market. But more people now than ever consider desktops an anachronism, heading straight to the laptop aisle instead for their next computer purchase.
It’s not always the right move. Rumors of the demise of the desktop PC have been greatly exaggerated, year after year, for at least a decade now. Desktops aren’t facing extinction, and they are doing anything but standing still. Consumers and businesses alike should still consider buying one, because their advantages of old still ring true today: Forty years after they ignited the personal computing revolution and the internet age, they’re still the most cost-effective, customizable, and easy-to-upgrade computers you can own.
Despite these advantages, a desktop isn’t necessarily better than a laptop or tablet for everyone, especially if your main computing life consists of basic typing and surfing tasks done on the living-room couch. For many others—especially small businesses, families, creative professionals, gamers, and tech tinkerers—desktops are often the best choice and the best value.
While desktops don’t come in as many distinct form factors as laptops do, there is great variation in computing power and room for upgrades among them. Let’s consider these, and a bunch of other important factors, in this guide to buying a desktop.
Take Stock of Your Budget
One of the desktop’s most alluring promises is the value it delivers. Your money simply goes further with desktop PCs and their components. Instead of buying a $700 laptop with a competent Intel Core i5 processor, you can get a $700 desktop with a more powerful Core i7 CPU in it, and maybe even squeeze in a dedicated graphics card.
You can find complete mini PCs for very light work and display-signage tasks for under $300, and perfectly serviceable small towers for $300 to $600. Gaming desktops with dedicated graphics cards start at around $500. You can also find all-in-one desktops, with the display and all of the computing components built into a single device, starting at around $400.
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The thing with desktops is, opting for a cheap one does not carry some of the same risks you’d face with a like-priced laptop. A $250 Black Friday special or a steeply discounted refurbished desktop could perform just fine for basic computing, and you wouldn’t need to worry about the wear and tear on cheap materials that you might with a laptop of a similar price. That inexpensive laptop would be subject to the vagaries of daily commuting and the occasional drop from a coffee table. The desktop, in contrast, would need to stay put and just work.
At the top end of the market are business workstations, tricked-out gaming rigs, and magnificently engineered all-in-one PCs that cost several thousand dollars. Not only will a $3,000 gaming tower offer immense computing power today, but it should come with so much room for expansion and potential for upgradability that its useful life will be far longer than any laptop’s. And that’s before you even delve into the wild world of custom PCs: automotive-grade paint jobs, liquid cooling, and fanciful lighting and wiring.
IT-manageable, security-conscious business desktops—most of them nowadays made by Dell, HP, and Lenovo—have their own pricing dynamic and tend to cost more, all else being equal. That’s because of their premium warranty or support plans, as well as the possible addition of enterprise-specific silicon focused on manageability or security. Sometimes, part of the cost premium of business desktops reflects the PC maker’s guarantee that it will stock replacement components and upgrades for that line of machines for a fixed future period. That allows IT pros to count on the ability to continue servicing a fleet of a given business machine over that stretch of time.
Settle on an Operating System
The Mac vs. PC debate is one of the oldest in modern technology, and we’re not going to pick a side or try to settle that particular religious war here. But if you’re not wedded to one or the other by years of habit (or the peripherals and software you own) and are open to switching, here’s a quick rundown of your choices.
Windows 10 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 the widest selection of third-party software. Desktops running Windows 10 are also readily available below $500, making them attractive to casual users, families looking for a second PC, and bargain hunters.
Macs are an excellent choice if you’re already in an Apple-centric household, since they offer seamless compatibility with iPads and iPhones, including the ability to send and receive messages on any device connected to your iCloud account. The cost of entry will be higher than with the least expensive PCs, however.
Google’s Chrome OS is a viable alternative to Windows and macOS, but desktops running it (called Chromeboxes) are rare and best suited to niche uses like powering a restaurant menu display. A fourth option is to buy a desktop with no operating system at all and install an open-source one of your choosing, such as Ubuntu. We don’t recommend going this route unless you’re technically savvy, willing to experiment, and okay fixing software compatibility issues and other quirks.
What Desktop Form Factor Do You Need?
Macs and Windows PCs are available in all three of the major desktop form factors: mini PCs that can fit on a bookshelf, sleek all-in-ones with built-in (and usually high-resolution) displays, and traditional desktop towers that are bulky but offer lots of room for expansion. These three forms each have strengths and weaknesses, and none of them is an obvious best choice for everyone. You’ll have to choose based on what you plan to do with your desktop and where you plan to put it.
For truly cramped quarters or light workloads, as well as for people who love the efficient use of space, a mini PC could be the best choice. They come in sizes ranging from tiny sticks not much larger than a USB thumb drive to small-form-factor (SFF) towers that may be nearly a foot tall but have compact footprints. The very smallest sizes have the benefit of disappearing behind an HDMI-equipped monitor or TV, and they contain a processor, memory, storage, and ports to hook up keyboards and mice. They’re economical and power-efficient, and can serve as adequate web browsing or multimedia viewing platforms. But know that the models at the truly tiny end of the scale offer no room for adding extra internal components, and their preinstalled parts are usually difficult or impossible to upgrade.
That said, you can find a fair mix of what qualify as mini PCs that do offer the ability to customize or upgrade components. Models based on or inspired by Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) platform can be as small as 5 inches square but still allow for one or two solid-state drives of your choosing, and the ability to choose and install your own RAM. They’re bigger than the “stick”-style PCs but much more flexible.
Traditional tower desktops offer even more flexibility, but also a lot more bulk. Nowadays, the differences between midsize and full-size towers are less well-defined, and some of the new PC case designs—from cubes to glass boxes—defy easy categorization. Still, nearly all desktop towers have generous amounts of interior space and full-size (a.k.a. ATX) motherboards, so you can install one or more (sometimes, many more) secondary storage drives, more RAM in empty slots on the motherboard, or even a second graphics card for extreme gaming or graphics-accelerated tasks.
An all-in-one (AIO) desktop is quite a different animal than both of these form factors. An AIO can save you some space, since the display is built in. An AIO’s value proposition comes down to space saving and whether you happen to be shopping for a desktop display at the same time. Though you can find budget AIOs with basic feature sets, lower resolutions, and non-touch screens, many new models offer touch-enabled screens, and some AIO panels have exceptionally high native resolutions of 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) or even 5K (5,120 by 2,880 pixels). Touch displays make them excellent choices for watching movies or serving as a multimedia hub in the kitchen or other public area of your home, though the very highest resolutions target content creators rather than consumers.
With a few exceptions for business-oriented models, you will give up a lot of room for expansion in an AIO versus traditional desktop tower. Cracking open an AIO for an upgrade or fix, while not impossible, is a bigger deal than opening the side of a desktop tower. Apple’s late-model iMacs are particularly difficult to open.
How Much Processing Power Is Enough?
One of the main benefits of a desktop tower is that it will use a desktop-grade CPU. That may sound obvious, but it’s a key distinction.
AMD and Intel, the two biggest makers of processors for PCs, offer desktop-class chips and laptop-class chips to system manufacturers, but often the CPU model names are similar and tricky to tell apart. For example, you will see Intel’s Core i7 in both laptops and desktops, but having a “true” desktop CPU versus one made for a mobile device makes a big performance difference.
A desktop CPU gives you more power for complex content-creation work, PC gaming, or math and scientific projects. Faster processors with four, six, eight, or even as many as 18 cores will benefit software written to take advantage of the extra cores. The desktop version of a given CPU will consume more power and generate more heat than versions designed for laptops, which must be incorporated into environments that have less thermal and power-delivery leeway. A desktop CPU also has greater wiggle room to incorporate a key feature, multithreading, that allows each of the CPU’s cores to address two processing threads at a time instead of just one. Multithreading (which Intel calls “Hyper-Threading”) can deliver a major performance boost when engaged with suitably equipped software.
The very highest-end desktop chips may require liquid cooling systems, which limits their use to high-end towers with lots of interior space. Processors in these families are specialized and expensive, and you’ll only want them if you have very specific software needs that you know, explicitly, can leverage their higher base and peak clock rates, as well as all of their addressable cores and threads. These are not casual purchases.
Many AIOs and mini PCs, conversely, use the same efficient, cooler-running types of CPUs that you’ll find in laptops. Intel typically labels these mobile-first chip designs with a CPU name containing “U,” “Y,” or “H”; most desktop chips instead have a “T” or a “K,” or just a zero at the end. A mobile CPU might have the same number of processor cores as its desktop counterpart (four- and six-core chips are common in both), but its maximum power consumption will often be far lower. Also, the typical base and boost clock speeds may be lower, and the chip may not support multithreading. That said, many desktop PC buyers will be fine with these lower-powered CPUs for everyday work, and a little more.
For a typical tower using a true desktop-grade CPU, mainstream users should look for an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5; the Core i7 and Ryzen 7 are also excellent, powerful choices, but overkill for most folks who aren’t serious PC gamers, intensive multitaskers, or prosumer or pro video or image manipulators. If CPU power is critically important, though, these should suffice. The Core i9, Ryzen 9, Ryzen Threadripper, and Core X-Series are worthwhile only if you know your workflow is being held back by too few cores or threads. Again, see our deep-dive on desktop CPUs to understand the nuances of these higher-end choices.
Do You Need a Powerful Graphics Card?
All computers have a CPU, but most laptops and many cheaper desktops don’t have a dedicated graphics processor, or GPU. Instead, their display output comes from a portion of the CPU, a slice of silicon known as an integrated graphics processor (IGP). An IGP is fine for basic tasks, such as checking your email, browsing the web, or even streaming videos. Doing productivity work on an IGP is completely within bounds. Indeed, most business desktops rely on IGPs.
That said, an IGP is not the answer for anyone who wants to run intensive 3D games, render architectural simulations, or perhaps train an artificial intelligence algorithm. These situations—especially games, but often pro-grade apps, too—can benefit from more muscular graphics. Times like these call for a graphics card, which will bring its own GPU to the game, and the most powerful of these are found in desktop PCs.
Choosing a graphics card is a complex affair. Gamers should consider the capabilities of their monitor first. A 4K monitor or one with a high refresh rate (144Hz or greater) will require a very powerful GPU (or occasionally even two GPUs) to display games at the monitor’s maximum potential. If you’re just looking to do some middle-of-the-road gaming on a 1080p monitor (and not looking to win any professional esports crowns), a mainstream card like those in Nvidia’s GeForce GTX series will do just fine. At the high end, current GPU choices for gaming desktops include Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2000 series and AMD’s Radeon RX 5000 series.
Meanwhile, creative professionals and other power users should consider the graphics-acceleration recommendations of the apps they plan to run, using the software maker’s system requirements as a guide. Graphics-accelerated video rendering or AI programs can benefit from the same types of GPUs as intensive 3D games. Professionals eyeing workstations will want to consider Nvidia’s Quadro lineup or AMD’s Radeon Pro models. Check out our deep-dive guide to graphics cards for much, much more on the nuances of today’s video cards.
How Much Storage and Memory Should Your Desktop Have?
While powerful CPUs and GPUs are mostly relegated to desktop towers, nearly every desktop form factor can handle copious amounts of storage and memory. This is thanks to the advent of higher-capacity memory modules and especially solid-state drives (SSDs). The latter take up vastly less space than the spinning hard drives of old.
It’s still possible to find desktops with only spinning hard drives, but we recommend avoiding these and choosing an SSD as the main boot drive whenever possible. Some desktops feature a single-drive combination of an SSD and a hard drive (like Apple’s Fusion Drive) or a hard drive and special caching memory (notably, Intel’s Optane Memory). These solutions are faster than hard drives by themselves, but not as fast as a pure SSD. We still recommend avoiding them, where you can, in favor of a “true” SSD, considering how far prices have dropped in the last year or so.
A single 500GB or 512GB SSD is fine for most users. A 250GB or 256GB SSD is also a common size for a boot drive these days, but it’s a little tight if you store much locally. Anyone with large media and game collections will want to consider several terabytes of storage across multiple drives. Consider choosing a fast SSD as the boot drive, and one or more large-capacity but slower hard drives for bulk storage of capacity-sapping video or games. A typical configuration in this case is one 512GB SSD and two or more hard drives with at least 1TB of space on each. Such a setup can be more affordable than you might think—an SSD plus one hard drive is sometimes seen on sub-$1,000 desktop towers.
If you think you’ll add storage later, it’s wise to consider how many expansion bays your desktop has. A combination of two or more 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch bays should be enough, as these can accommodate any type of traditional SSD or hard drive. You’ll also want to ensure your desktop has at least one M.2 slot to accept a PCI Express SSD as the main boot drive, since that will offer the fastest throughput speeds. In many new systems, the boot drive will come as an M.2 drive. These drives are very small, the size and thickness of a stick of gum.
While a desktop’s SSD stores your data, its system memory (or RAM) works with the CPU to run apps and helps define its capacity to multitask. Memory capacities of 8GB or 16GB are fine for most users, and these are the most common configurations on entry-level or midrange desktops of all forms and sizes.
Few people will see much benefit from memory amounts above 16GB, but there are exceptions. Gaming PCs above the budget level should have at least 16GB of RAM, and 32GB is a prudent upgrade for esports hounds who want to play and simultaneously edit and stream in-game footage. Finally, assuming your professional software can address higher memory amounts, professional workstations should have at least 32GB of memory with error-correcting code (ECC) capabilities to keep everything running smoothly.
Pinpoint the Specific Connectivity You Need
You might be able to excuse a relative lack of input and output ports on a sleek AIO. The screen and speakers are built in, and you’ll likely use a wireless keyboard and mouse, anyway. But mini PCs and desktop towers need the right selection of ports. At a minimum, they’ll have to connect to a display, speakers or headphones, and a power source.
On all but the very tiniest of mini PCs, you should look for at least three USB 3.0 (or higher) ports, at least one of which should be the newer, oval-shaped Type-C variety if you have any compatible peripherals that plug directly into that kind of port. You’ll also typically find an HDMI output (and perhaps another video output or two, such as DisplayPort or VGA), a 3.5mm audio jack, a connector for an external Wi-Fi antenna, and a receptacle for a physical lock. Note that some mini PCs use scaled-down “mini” versions of HDMI or DisplayPort, which require a different kind of input cable or a dongle. Make sure the machine’s video outputs are compatible with your display and its cabling.
Larger tower PCs will have many more ports, offering support for pretty much any peripheral you need to connect. Expect six or more USB ports, for starters. On larger towers, one or two of these should support Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C. Also a given: an Ethernet jack for wired networking, and multiple DisplayPort and HDMI jacks on the dedicated GPU (assuming there is one) for connecting one or more external monitors. Note that a tower with a graphics card may also have video outputs that stem from the motherboard, but you should only use the video outputs on the GPU.
Many towers will also have multiple audio ports, including possibly an optical output and ports for individual speaker channels in a surround-sound setup. Make sure that these match up with any gear you may have; the number of surround-sound jacks can vary depending on the PC and its motherboard. Note that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, while reliably present on even the cheapest laptops and many smaller desktops, is not a given on larger towers.
High-end workstations and gaming desktops sometimes have a second Ethernet port for doubling network bandwidth or for always-connected redundancy, while business desktops sometimes offer legacy connectors such as VGA video outputs, PS/2 peripheral ports, or serial ports. The throwback-style ports are there for people who still need to use them with older, specialized hardware such as point-of-sale scanners or industrial equipment. Of course, you can buy dongles and adapters for these special port needs, but the possibility of having them built in is a key benefit of choosing a desktop over a laptop.
When evaluating a desktop, beyond looking at what ports are present, also evaluate where they are. Are they easily accessible? Towers tend to have a few commonly used ports on the top or front (usually a headphone jack and few USB ports). Some AIOs, in contrast, have some of their key ports hidden behind the stand, in hard-to-reach places.
Screen Size, Expansion Bays, and More
Some buying concerns, no less crucial than the ones above, apply only to certain types of desktops. Deciding on a screen size and type is critical for AIO shoppers, for instance. A touch-enabled display with support for in-plane switching (IPS) to widen viewing angles is nice to have for an AIO that serves as the family’s calendar or photo album, but know that touch support is not currently available on Apple’s iMacs.
Give some deep thought to the screen resolution, whatever the panel size. A 4K or even 5K resolution makes for a breathtaking screen, especially one that’s 27 inches or larger, but such resolutions often add significantly to the price. As a result, you may want to settle for a screen with a full HD or 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) native resolution and spend money to upgrade other components instead.
Some AIOs, like the Microsoft Surface Studio line, have extraordinarily adjustable stands; in the case of the Studio, you can recline it nearly flat on the tabletop, for work with fingertip touch input or a stylus pen. Also look for multiple cameras, one facing the rear, that could make an AIO a good choice, say, for an ID-card printing station. Fan noise is also a consideration with AIOs, since their computing components will be on your desk instead of hidden underneath it.
Desktop towers have many of their own idiosyncrasies. Enthusiasts who like to tinker with components but aren’t interested in building their own PCs from scratch will need to pay special attention to the number and type of expansion bays and how easy it is to access power and data cables.
They should also check the maximum wattage rating of the power supply unit (PSU) and whether or not the case has the clearance for bigger coolers (or the mounting points for liquid cooling gear), if they might plan to add a more powerful CPU later on. A low-wattage PSU, such as a 300-watt model used in a desktop with integrated graphics, might preclude adding a graphics card later on without upgrading the PSU, too.
Desktop towers and mini PCs also require separate speakers or headphones to deliver audio. If you don’t already have them, you’ll have to spend extra money to buy some, and in the case of dedicated speakers, they’ll take up room on your desk. For people who don’t care as much about audio quality and just want loud enough audio to hear family members on the other end of a Skype call, the built-in speakers of an AIO should work just fine.
For most people in the market for an inexpensive desktop tower, there’s no single best time to buy. While traditional sale holidays such as Black Friday can net you the odd bargain, when you find a system whose features, price, and performance match what you’re looking for, take it home.
That said, people who need copious amounts of CPU or GPU muscle (and who have a clear idea of what hardware moves the performance needle with the apps they use) should pay attention to PC-component release cycles. Traditionally, Intel has announced new desktop CPU generations once a year, with the new chips showing up in PCs in the fall or early in the holiday shopping period. (This has shown more variance in recent years.)
New graphics-card releases are less frequent and depend on the vagaries of technical advances—Nvidia’s highly successful GeForce GTX 1000 series, for example, was the cutting edge for several years before the first GeForce RTX cards were announced.
Keeping track of PC component release cycles helps you become aware of what’s new before you buy, and also what is going off-market. For shoppers seeking maximum value or on a tight budget, getting a desktop based on a discounted last-generation (but still powerful) CPU or GPU can be the way to go.
Shoppers looking for an all-in-one PC, meanwhile, should pay attention to announcements from Apple and Microsoft. Many other manufacturers end up copying—and, sometimes, improving upon—the field-leading designs of the Apple iMac and the Microsoft Surface Studio.
Where Should I Buy a Desktop?
Since you won’t be lugging a desktop around nearly as much as you would a laptop, it’s less important to handle the chassis and test-drive its build quality in the store before you bring it home. Still, if the desktop comes with peripherals included, it can be helpful to type a few lines and move the mouse around in the store. And setting eyes on an all-in-one desktop is more crucial than with a typical tower desktop or mini PC. The screen is an integral part of what you are buying, and eyes-on time matters, especially if you’re not well-versed, say, in the differences between a 24-inch and 27-inch panel, or a 1080p versus a 4K screen.
If you limit yourself only to the selection at your local electronics outlet, though, you’ll miss out on many great desktops. In fact, some configurations can be exclusive to a single reseller, such as Best Buy, Costco, or Walmart. Other merchants, including Fry’s Electronics and Micro Center, frequently have in-store-only deals that aren’t available anywhere online.
This is where return policies come in handy. If you find a desktop with your ideal specifications online but can’t audition it locally, a seller with a liberal return policy is your best friend. Just make sure you’ve got adequate time to return it, if it ends up not working out.
How Long a Warranty Does My Desktop Need?
Most desktop makers offer one-year warranties on parts and labor, with extensions available for as many as five years at an additional charge. Before you pay to extend the warranty, though, check your credit-card account benefits guide—your issuer might cover mishaps for a short period of time after you buy a new product, and possibly extend the manufacturer’s warranty, too. (Many MasterCard accounts include a doubling of the standard warranty period, up to one year, for example.)
If your card issuer doesn’t cover you, and you plan on keeping your desktop for several years, look into the cost of added coverage. Some manufacturers and resellers offer wide ranges of extended warranties; expect to spend $100 to $300 for one of these options. Our rule of thumb is that if a warranty costs more than 15 percent of the desktop’s purchase price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime and protect precious data that you can’t replace.
Should I Buy a Refurbished Desktop?
Many people considering desktops in the $200-to-$500 range should also consider a refurbished machine. They can be excellent values in certain circumstances.
Large corporations lease fleets of desktops for a few years at a time, after which third parties refurbish them and offer them for resale on eBay, as well as via retailers such as Best Buy, Newegg, and TigerDirect. To find them, search or filter the product category pages for “off-lease” or refurbished systems.
These refurbished PCs are often surprisingly cheap ($150 to $250 is common), and many are desktop towers, so they’re easy to upgrade or service if a component goes south. They do come with drawbacks. Their components are several years behind the cutting edge, they may be in imperfect cosmetic condition (some refurbishers grade condition on an A-B-C scale), and different refurbishers can have varying levels of attention to detail. Still, if you’re looking for a cheap desktop to stow in a cabinet or under a desk, used just to check your email and calendar, refurbs are a fine option.
Where to Go Next
Armed with all of the knowledge and decision points above, you’re almost ready to shop. The final consideration is how well a desktop PC performs. We review hundreds of PCs every year, 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.
Our current favorite desktops are below. Not finding anything that looks good? Check out the full feed of all of our latest desktop reviews, as well as our guides to our favorite all-in-one PCs, business desktops, and gaming desktops.
Where To Buy
- Best For General Use: Acer Aspire TC-885-UA92 — $683.43 at Walmart
- Best For DIY-Minded Gamers, Power Users After a Super-Small PC: Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit (Ghost Canyon) — $1,639.99 at B&H Photo Video
- Best For macOS-Bound Creative Professionals: Apple iMac 27-Inch With 5K Retina Display (2019) — at Amazon
- Best For macOS-Loyal, Space-Strapped Users: Apple Mac mini (2018) — $679.00 at Amazon
- Best For Maximum Configurability, Raw Workstation Power: Dell Precision 7920 Tower (2020) — $2,219.00 at Dell Technologies
- Best For Creative Pros, Media Editors Seeking an AIO: HP Envy 32 All-in-One — $1,699.99 at HP
- Best For Value-Minded Workstation Users: HP Z2 Tower G4 — $909.44 at HP
- Best For Digital Artists: Microsoft Surface Studio 2 — $3,499.00 at Microsoft Store
- Best For Hardcore Gamers, Content Creators: Alienware Aurora R10 Ryzen Edition — $1,029.99 at Dell
- Best For Gamers on a Budget: Dell G5 Gaming Desktop — $619.99 at Dell