There are a lot of choices to make when shopping for a desktop computer. PC or Mac? Traditional tower-and-monitor system or an all-in-one computer? What specs do you need inside it? Here’s what you need to know to buy your next desktop with confidence.
Why choose a desktop computer?
Shopping for a new desktop.
How will you use your desktop?
- Light use: Surfing the web, paying bills online, email and social media, organizing and sharing digital photos.
- Average use: Storing and streaming music and movies, light photo editing, tasks like spreadsheet and document creation.
- High-performance use: Serious gaming, sophisticated graphics and photo editing, video production, high-resolution multitrack audio recording.
More demanding users will want to invest a bit more in a faster processor, more system memory, and larger, faster storage — and a higher resolution screen for an all-in-one computer.
Where will you keep it?
If your new computer will live in an isolated location like a dedicated home office, a traditional desktop tower may be ideal. However, if your computer will be in a more centralized location for family use, a slim desktop or a stylish all-in-one computer may be more suitable.
Installed exclusively on Mac computers, macOS boasts an elegant and easy-to-use interface to complement Mac’s sleek aesthetics, high build quality and sophisticated ergonomics. Macs have historically had fewer issues with viruses and malware. However, iMac models start at a higher price point than all-in-one PCs; the entry-level Mac mini (sans monitor, keyboard and mouse) is more budget-friendly than the iMac. Also, no Mac model to date includes touch-screen functionality.
Windows can be used with a traditional mouse and keyboard, but is designed specifically around an intuitive touch-screen interface to expand your navigation options. The integrated Windows Hello feature lets you log in quickly using a look or a touch instead of a password (if your PC setup includes a webcam or touch screen), while remaining enterprise-grade secure. It also offers an updated task manager, streamlined file management and a suite of built-in apps.
Intel’s processors are at the heart of every modern Mac desktop and the majority of Windows desktops. Most prevalent is the Intel® Core™ series of multicore processors.
- Core i9: Geared toward “enthusiasts,” these processors are packed with unlocked cores and multiple threads to tackle even the most demanding games and projects.
- Core i7: A popular choice for “power users” like hardcore gamers, graphics designers, photographers and videographers. It excels at serious multitasking and high-demand multimedia creation for projects in 3D or 4K.
- Core i5: Mid-grade Core processor is powerful enough for most computing tasks and multitasks among multiple applications very well.
- Core i3: The entry-level Core processor, more than adequate for everyday email, internet and productivity tasks. It’s also fine for common activities like streaming music.
In value-priced desktops, you’ll also see Intel’s Pentium® and Celeron® processors. These are adequate for basic email, internet and productivity tasks, but their speed and multitasking capabilities are limited relative to those of the Core family.
On the other end of the spectrum, some high-end and “workstation” desktops may boast Intel Xeon® processors. These multicore superprocessors are designed for network servers and other specialized professional applications, and go above and beyond the processing performance of most consumer desktops.
AMD provides a range of advanced processors for virtually every task, with most falling under the Ryzen™ label.
- Ryzen Threadripper™: Designed with “enthusiasts” in mind, these multicore, multithread processors are ready for games, digital content creation and other power-hungry projects.
- Ryzen 9: Serious power and performance for competitive gaming as well as full-scale content creation and production.
- Ryzen 7: The performance you need for intensive tasks, including editing and streaming videos, running demanding applications, and playing the latest games with smooth frame rates.
- Ryzen 5: All-around multimedia performance for multitasking, streaming 4K videos and gaming.
- Ryzen 3: Responsive performance for school, home and office tasks, as well as casual gaming and media streaming.
Within these families, the Ryzen 3000 series delivers measurable performance improvements over its Ryzen 2000 predecessors.
AMD also offers the FX and A-Series processor families.
- FX: Aggressive yet power-smart performance for advanced gaming, complex modeling and video editing.
- A Series: These processors prioritize value and are geared toward your everyday productivity tasks.
Hard disk drive (HDD)
Traditional hard disk drives are relatively inexpensive and can offer huge capacities for your dollar. However, they generate both heat and noise, and their speed is defined by how fast their mechanical parts can move. Most desktop hard drives offer a 7200 rpm spindle speed to transfer data quickly and better handle large files, although some models include a slower 5400 rpm drive.
Solid state drive (SSD)
The next-generation storage option, solid state drives are flash-based with no moving parts to wear out. SSDs are many times faster than hard disk drives, delivering faster performance when starting, launching software and saving files, all while creating less heat and no noise. SSD storage capacity tends to be smaller than you’ll find in hard drives overall, but larger terabyte drives are now more common (although you should expect to pay a premium).
A growing number of desktop towers and even some all-in-one computers are configured with two storage drives right out of the box. These desktops include both a hard drive and a solid state drive, giving you the full advantages of each. By installing your OS and frequently used programs on the SSD, you’ll see a performance boost where it matters most, while the traditional HDD provides plenty of storage capacity for your other files.
Hybrid hard drives
The less-common hybrid drive combines a hard drive for storage capacity with a solid state cache to provide fast access to frequently used data. Apple’s Fusion Drive is their iteration of a hybrid drive, featuring a hard disk drive with NAND flash storage as one Core Storage system, and can be found in some iMac and Mac mini models.
Ports and connectivity.
- USB Type-A: Connects external drives, gaming controllers, smartphones, MP3 players and other accessories. USB 3.0 ports are distinguished by a blue insert and transfer data faster than USB 2.0 when used with USB 3.0 devices. They are backward-compatible with legacy USB 2.0 devices, but limited to 2.0 speeds.
- USB Type-C: Enables blazing USB 3.1 speeds and versatile power, featuring connectors with identical ends that plug in upside down or right-side up. Some monitors now support USB-C connectivity. Adapters allow for video as well as backward compatibility with Type-A ports.
- HDMI: Connect a monitor, projector or HDTV.
- DisplayPort: Connect a monitor or projector.
- Media card slots: Transfer photos or videos directly from the memory card used in your digital camera, camcorder or smartphone. Supported card formats vary from desktop to desktop.
- Ethernet: Provides a hard-wired connection to your router for a stable connection and consistent speed that aren’t subject to environmental interference, freeing up your bandwidth for mobile devices.
In addition to physical ports, many of today’s desktops include built-in wireless networking, and most are also Bluetooth-enabled.