Desktop Computer Buying Guide
A desktop computer can be a smart and ergonomic pick if you’re setting up a home office and aren’t worried much about mobility. Staring into a monitor puts less strain on your neck than staring down into a laptop. You also generally get more power per dollar spent with a desktop than you do with a laptop.
Some models come with a built-in display, and others require you to supply your own. Luckily, you can find good computer monitors for reasonable prices. In fact, while all-in-one models with a screen tend to be aesthetically pleasing and take up less desk space, they can cost a lot more than buying a desktop computer and monitor separately.
Mac or PC? It’s really up to you. You’ll find models on both platforms that score well in our labs. They’ll support the most popular software options, too, from Adobe Photoshop to Chrome, Slack to Zoom. But there are benefits to pairing a Mac with an iPhone or an Android phone with a PC. You may be able to answer a text message with your keyboard, for example, or share copy-paste data between a computer and a smartphone.
Desktop Computer Types
Desktops generally offer better bang for your buck compared with laptops, delivering more power and performance per dollar spent.
Depending on the model you choose, you may have to supply your own mouse, keyboard, and monitor. In that case, you might want to consider buying an ergonomic mouse and keyboard. And given the rise of video chatting, you may also need a webcam because freestanding monitors typically don’t come with one built in.
They require a lot of room—either on top of or under your desk—but full-sized desktops tend to be the least expensive computer option and the easiest to upgrade and repair.
At less than half the size of a full-sized desktop, a compact or slim desktop is ideal if you lack space under your desk or if you plan to put the computer on your desk.
All-in-ones combine the computer and monitor. The components are tightly packed behind the display, making the models difficult to upgrade or repair. Meant to be space-savers, they’re also designed to look less stodgy than traditional computers.
The sky’s the limit for gaming systems. You get the fastest processors, the most sophisticated graphics cards, large hard drives, and lots of RAM. Cases are usually large and offer room for additional components, such as extra memory or dedicated sound cards. These models tend to be quite expensive.
No Guts, No Glory: A Computer’s Inner Workings
Choosing a Processor and an OS
Speed matters. Processors with multiple cores can process more data simultaneously.
Clock speed, measured in gigahertz, along with the number of cores and other factors, determines how quickly a processor can process information. Many processors can up the speed a bit for a brief time to yield maximum performance. Generally, within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the processor. Clock speeds typically start at around 1 GHz for a mobile processor. Speeds can exceed 5 GHz for a desktop processor.
If you’re looking for a very basic or budget computer to browse the web, check email, and work on Office documents, basically every processor on the market should be sufficient.
If you plan to watch high-definition videos or play mainstream games, the Intel Core i5 and AMD Ryzen 5 line of processors should be your starting point.
How Much Memory?
The more memory a computer has, the faster it is, up to a point. Memory is measured in gigabytes. On desktops, 8GB has become common, with 16GB or more found on higher-end devices. Unless you regularly have multiple demanding apps open at the same time, 8GB should be your target.
Windows 11, the latest version of Microsoft’s long-running operating system, should be preinstalled on most PCs. If it’s not, it’s a free upgrade from Windows 10. Windows 11 adds a refreshed user interface (which now resembles macOS) and deeper integration with OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, and is otherwise very similar to Windows 10.
A huge assortment of software can be downloaded for the platform from Microsoft’s app store and developer websites. Games tend to debut on Windows before making their way to macOS, for instance. Microsoft releases free updates throughout the year, adding features, fixing bugs, etc.
Macs can be a little more expensive than comparable PCs, but they’re less prone to most viruses and spyware (in part because there are more Windows PCs out there than Macs, making them a bigger target for hackers). The latest version of macOS is called Monterey and was released in fall 2021. Apple also releases several macOS updates free throughout the year.
All About Drives, the Battery, and More
Solid state drives: SSDs are faster than traditional hard drives in part because they don’t have any moving parts. An SSD can offer a great performance boost to a computer that’s outfitted with a traditional hard drive, which has a spinning hard disk and uses more power than an SSD. In general, Consumer Reports recommends solid state drives over hard drives.
Hard-drive sizes are measured in gigabytes and terabytes; they commonly range from 250GB to more than 1TB.
Speed is equally important and is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). A slow hard drive will take longer to start up the operating system and programs, and to complete tasks (such as installing programs or scanning your hard drive for viruses).
For best performance, get a desktop with at least a 7,200-rpm hard drive.
If you need a CD or DVD reader to, say, access old files or watch a movie that’s not available on a streaming service, you can find an external optical drive that plugs into a USB port for around $20 to $30.
Graphics Adapter and Graphics Memory
Also known as the video card, graphics processing unit (GPU), or graphics card, this hardware is responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. Graphics processing comes in two basic flavors: It can be integrated into the same chip that’s running the rest of the computer, or it can run on a discrete piece of equipment.
Most computers have integrated graphics. This has usually been the less expensive and lower-performing option—fine for most tasks but not for serious gaming. If you play mainstream and extreme games with all the visual effects turned on or if you edit video, especially high-definition and ultra-high def (4K), you’ll want discrete graphics. Light video editing and gaming, and all other typical computer tasks, will do fine with integrated graphics.
Desktop Computer Features
Although most desktop computers come with a basic, predefined set of features, that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices.
Desktop Computer Brands
This list comprises the major computer brands. In choosing a brand, consider the manufacturer’s owner satisfaction and reliability ratings (available to CR members) from our surveys.
Acer Aspire laptops and desktops run the gamut of computers from budget to high end, including a full line of thin-and-light laptops and detachables. Acer also produces Chromebooks. The Nitro and Predator series are the company’s gaming desktops.
Apple computers usually cost more than similarly configured Windows-based systems. Apple computers use macOS (formerly known as OS X). Macs can also run Windows using specialized software. The company offers several consumer lines: MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops, iMac all-in-one desktops, and the Mac Mini, a small, budget desktop. The Mac Pro desktop is its professional line. Apple’s free telephone tech support is limited to three months, but you can get unlimited free support at the Genius Bar in Apple Stores.
Asus offers a full lineup of desktop and laptop computers, including thin-and-light and 2-in-1 laptop models under its ZenBook line. The company also produces Chromebooks, as well as higher-end PCs aimed at gamers that are sold under ROG (Republic of Gamers) branding.
Inspiron is Dell’s mass-market line of laptops, desktops, and all-in-ones. For higher performance and gaming systems, Dell offers the XPS line, which includes convertibles. For gamers, Dell offers Alienware systems. Dell also offers a small line of Chromebooks.
For laptop users, HP offers the budget HP Desktop line, the mainstream Pavilion line, the higher-performance Envy line, and the Omen and Victus lines for gamers. HP also offers a line of Chromebooks.
Lenovo’s consumer desktops and all-in-ones include the mainstream Yoga, the all-in-one IdeaCentre, the business-focused ThinkCentre, and the Legion line for gaming.
Microsoft offers the Surface and Surface Pro detachable laptops/tablets. The Surface Book is a larger detachable laptop. The company also produces an all-in-one PC known as the Surface Studio that’s primarily intended for artists, designers, and other creative users.