How to choose a desktop PC

Features James Hunt Jan 22, 2013

Choosing a desktop system can be hard. James gives you some advice to make it easier

For a variety of reasons, full-size computers have fallen out of fashion with casual buyers. It’s not hard to speculate as to why, when you recall the dull, bulky, impractical cases that are instantly associated with this type of system - although in all fairness, their current unpopularity has less to do with looks and more to do with buyer behaviour that values portability, disposability and more modern interface methods than a keyboard and mouse.

However, unlike tablets and laptops, desktops tend to be long-term investments rather than ‘throwaway’ devices to be replaced a year or two after purchase - and, as such, they’re much better value. For the price of a decent notebook, you can get a desktop PC that’s more powerful, will last longer, and boast a substantially larger screen - well worth considering, if portability doesn’t matter to you.

In addition to the financial savings, there are numerous practical advantages to owning a desktop over a notebook. The main thing notebooks have going for them is portability, and tablets and netbooks do that better now. Desktops might seem monolithic compared to a notebook system, but their footprint is vastly lower than it once was and, looking at it from another angle, a decent PC with good accessories can double as a TV, DVD player and stereo, actually reducing the space you’ll be using up overall.

Finally, one substantial advantage desktops have over laptops is that the upgrade process can be a gradual, additive and evolutionary one. You’re not going to discover that your beloved and faithful computer has magically become obsolete thanks to a press conference, because you can replace individual parts at different times. Laptops and tablets, because of their more integrated nature, are virtually impossible to expand.

So, assuming you’re convinced, keep reading for our advice on selecting the best desktop system for you.

How much should you spend?

As with tablets and notebook systems, a half-decent desktop PC will cost you around £300-£400, and anything cheaper than that is likely to be neutered, short-lived or deliberately crippled in such a way as to make it appear like more of a bargain than it is. You can buy cheaper systems, but only do it if budget is the biggest concern you have.

If you’re after a gaming PC, the price jumps up quite quickly. Primarily, that’s because a decent CPU and graphics card can cost the best part of £400 by themselves, and that’s before you’ve added the connective tissue and supporting components. Consider £600 the base level, but at retail you can expect to pay around £800-£1000 for a good gaming machine.

Anything more than that is probably excessive, not least because if you bought the components yourself you’d probably save a couple of hundred pounds straight away. The exception to this rule comes in the form of specialist gaming systems by the likes of ChillBlast and Overclockers, which tend to have a build-quality and engineering excellence that you wouldn’t be able to replicate at home. If you want a system from that kind of outlet, you’ll have to pay big money (probably up to £1500), but if you’re a gamer dedicated enough to pay that much in the first place, you should find the system worth the money.

Remember that the price of a desktop system will vary by £100-£200 simply based on whether it includes a monitor or not. Any prices we quote are for those that come without a monitor, simply because that’s our preferred way to buy a system. Finding the perfect monitor is difficult enough without trying to make a system retailer do it out of the goodness of its own heart!

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

Recommending any specific best desktop system is often hard to do, simply because they’re far more personal and versatile than tablets and laptops. You might be able to change the amount of RAM or type of storage in a laptop when you buy it, but most desktops can be customised to the point of being barely recognisable as the same model they began life as. That said, there are some stand-out systems we can recommend if you’re interested in buying a complete package and want a recognisable name to aim for.

For a start, you can rely on Apple’s systems to be easy to use and of universally high quality. You can also rely on them to empty your wallet, probably while laughing maniacally. In a financial climate that necessitates thrift, it’s fair to say that most Apple desktop systems are best left to brand fanatics, specialists (designers, musicians etc.) and the super-rich.

A reasonable alternative might be the Dell XPS One 27, which has a similar all-in-one form factor to the iMac range, but runs on Windows and contains a much sturdier selection of hardware for the money you pay. It’s not much cheaper, but it is better under the hood. A standard model could be expected to include an Ivy Bridge Core i7-3770, 8GB of RAM, 2TB of storage and a Blu-Ray Drive, all neatly secreted behind a 27” screen. A PC owner’s dream.

At the other end of the spectrum, you could try the Acer Revo L80 Nettop PC. Although not strictly a desktop system, these minimalist systems pack a lot of features into a small amount of space, and with their Core i3-2377M CPUs, 8GB of RAM and 750GB storage, they’re not exactly a slouch.

However, if we had to buy a system today, we’d be looking at something from the Lenovo ThinkCentre Edge family. The systems mostly contain Ivy Bridge i3/i5/i7 chips and are well-balanced, well-built and well-priced. There are a few blips, such as models containing 6GB of RAM where 8GB would be preferable, and the lack of HDMI ports on those without separate graphics cards, but bear those qualities in mind and you should be able to find one you like.

Still, remember that the best way to buy a desktop PC is always to build one yourself. If you’re willing to put the components together with your own two hands, you can save anywhere from £30 - £200 on a retail system. It’s far simpler than you expect, and the resulting system has a limited run of one model. You can’t get more exclusive and personal than that.

What technology should you look for?

Desktop systems are about two main things: power and versatility, so you need to pay particular attention to the hardware you look for in order to end up with a system that achieves these qualities.

For desktops in particular, make sure the CPU is an Intel model unless you have a good reason for buying AMD. Intel’s chips perform far better (particularly for intensive uses, such as gaming) and even in their slower varieties will leave you better scope for upgrading. We’d suggest buying an Ivy Bridge Core i5 if you’re aiming for a formidable machine, but even Pentiums and Celerons hold their own to an extent.

A concern unique to desktop systems is what type of screen they come with (if any). Any entertainment PC should have a screen with a native resolution of 1920 x 1080, but the size in inches is down to whatever you can afford as long as that’s taken care of. We think 24” is a reasonable size, but if you want/prefer a larger or smaller one, there’s no inherent problem with that - it’s all about the underlying technologies. Do read up on the model of monitor that’s on offer, though. It’s reasonably easy for companies to fob you off with a cheap, low-quality monitor and make it look like a good deal, so check how it performs on its own, and if you wouldn’t buy it as a stand-alone piece, don’t let them include it in your system package.

Expansion cards are also worth paying attention to. Gaming PCs should, under all circumstances, include some kind of graphics card. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s an AMD or Nvidia model, but their importance to gaming cannot be overstated. If you’re not gaming, though, it’s largely safe not to have one - especially if you’re running a Sandy/Ivy Bridge system, which will contain the platform’s own entirely reasonable GPU.

As for other expansions, if you want to run your system as a home cinema, remember to get a sound card so that you can get the most out of features like surround sound, and if you have a home network, a wireless card is worth including. They cost very little, but they’re noticeably better than USB dongles.

Remember that most websites will give you some ability to customise the components and peripherals that make up your new system, so take full advantage of that to make sure you get what you want and don’t waste money on extras you don’t need.

Is now the right time to buy?

There’s no question that desktop systems have fallen out of favour with the general public, and people are more likely to buy tablets or laptop systems. It’s understandable: they’re simply more convenient to have around the home.

As a result, the price of desktop systems has plateaued at a low point. In that sense, buying now is as good a time as any, because they can pretty much only get more expensive.

However, there are other reasons that now would be a good time to buy a desktop systems. The first is that retailers tend to refresh them alongside major releases - in particular, operating systems and CPU platforms. Windows 8 has just been released, and the successor to Ivy Bridge isn’t due until late next year - but both have been around long enough that you won’t be paying a huge premium to own them.

The suggestion is clear: now would be a reasonable time to buy a Desktop. Your other option is to wait just under a year and hope to benefit from a price drop just before the release of the new Intel platform, or wait just over a year and buy a new system at a premium, but with the latest hardware. Since the trade-offs cancel each other out, you might as well just buy a system now. There’s plenty of life left in Ivy Bridge, and they’re still practically giving Windows 8 away for its introductory period, so the longer you wait, the more chance there is that things will change - and not necessarily for the better.

What are the technical constraints?

The biggest thing that sets desktop systems apart from most other forms of computing is the obvious one: desktop systems aren’t portable. Sure, you CAN lug them from room to room (if you have an hour free), but it’s hardly worth it. Desktops are built to be static.
This means that they also take up a lot of space (compared to portable systems, at least) and use a lot of power. After all, with an unlimited supply of mains electricity, there’s little incentive to dial it back at any point. Whether you’d consider these constraints is debatable - they’re more like the unavoidable consequences of what desktop systems are good at, which is power-hungry performance and space-hungry range of capabilities.

One thing that’s definitely a constraint on desktop use is the maintenance they must undergo. Temperature regulation is a big part of it - desktop systems collect a lot of dust that needs cleaning out from time to time (we’d suggest once a year or so) to prevent them overheating and losing performance. Similarly, more powerful desktop components are more susceptible to wear caused by higher-temperature operations.

Once you have those covered, though, there’s no reason running a desktop can’t be a simple process, even if it’s one that requires a sliver more thought than running a portable system - but hey, at least you don’t have to worry about keeping desktops charged up!

What’s the alternative?

Desktop systems are largely built for purposes that require somewhat grand capabilities, and that tends to mean entertainment - both gaming and home theatre-based. If you can’t afford, or don’t want, a desktop system, there are other options.

For example, if you don’t mind paying a few hundred pounds more than a new desktop would cost you, it’s possible to buy an Ultrabook laptop with similar specs and capabilities, but with the advantage of being slightly more portable. Although notebook PCs tend to be mid-field in terms of power, high-end Ultrabooks can compete on most levels with a decent desktop system.

The problem is that they can’t be upgraded easily (you’re largely stuck with whatever hardware is installed when you buy it) and they’re not very good value if you don’t plan to utilise their mobile features. That said, they do hold their secondary value far longer than desktops, so in that sense they’re a smarter investment.

If you’re hoping to use a desktop system as an entertainment machine for things like Blu-ray movies and video-on-demand services, you could instead hook a home theatre PC up to your TV. These systems are optimised for playing and storing video, which means that they’re quiet and not very powerful, but they also contain things like a hardware sound card that’ll give you better surround sound than any laptop.

If you want something that can play games, DVDs AND connect to online streaming services, it’s worth pointing out that most games consoles can do this for the princely sum of just over a hundred pounds. Far cheaper than any desktop system. Though admittedly, they’re exponentially less versatile as well!