Need help with buying a new Windows desktop PC?Desktop PCs still offer a number of advantages over laptop/notebook PCs. For example, they generally come with more powerful processors, support for larger amounts of memory and bigger hard disks, and are generally easier to upgrade.Â
Here is some advice on choosing the right desktop for you. Price estimates are in US dollars.
PCs for different applications
There are a number of different types of desktop PC available, depending on what you want to do – everything from very basic office PCs to a high-end gaming PCs, and everything in-between. Here are the different types of PC youâ€™re likely to come across:
Office PCs: These are designed for general office duties, such using Office applications and checking email. Generally speaking theyâ€™re not very powerful and arenâ€™t usually very expandable.
Home PCs: These types of computers are designed for general home use â€“ doing office work when required, surfing the web, and playing low-end games.Â They are not really intended to be used for heavy duty gaming. Prices will range from $500 to $1,200.
Gaming PCs: An avid gamer will spend at least $1,200 on a system and a third of that could easily go into the graphics card.Â
Home theatre PCs: A home theatre PC is designed to form the centrepiece of your home audio-video system â€“ so it will be used to acquire, store and playback video and audio component though your TV and sound system.
Where to buy your PC
From a manufacturing/branding/retailing perspective, there are four different approaches youâ€™ll come across when shopping for a PC:
- No-name (aka â€œoff-brandâ€) PCsâ€“ cheaper and often available from mom-and-pop computer stores
- Brand name PCs â€“ refers to big brand PCs like HP, Dell, Acer, or Lenovo, which are available directly from the manufacturer or from larger retail chains
- Build it yourself PCs â€“ you build the computer yourself, so you buy the components at electronics and computer shops
- Custom built PCs â€“ here the PC is built to your specification, so you get a custom machine, without you having to get your hands dirty
With no-name PCs you may not even get the most basic support and in some cases the operating system is â€œoptionalâ€, if you know what I mean. Youâ€™ll get the necessary drivers on a disc, but going this route is usually asking for trouble in the long run, and retailers of no-name computers come and go with frightening regularity.
Brand-name PCs come from companies that well known, like Dell or HP. While these companies have their detractors, you can be pretty sure theyâ€™ll be around if something needs to be fixed.
If you are electronically inclined, you might also like to consider building your PC from components. Gamers, for example, typically like to piece together their own system from scratch.Â Part of the joy for some gamers is building the computer and then bringing it to life.
A problem with building your own PC, other than for it not to work once youâ€™ve assembled it, is that there is no one person responsible for the warranty.Â Online shops such as Newegg and TigerDirect are good about replacing parts that are found to be â€œDOAâ€ â€“ dead on arrival.Â You may not be so lucky with other stores.
If you just want to deal with a single company, but still want a computer tailored to your needs, you might consider a custom built computer from companies like WidowPC, Falcon Northwest or Velocity Micro.
Dell and HP, for example, seem to do better with business and budget systems so if that is your need it canâ€™t hurt to take a look there.
Choosing the type of graphics card
There are three main manufacturers of video cards.Â Intel makes integrated graphics ,with nvidia and ATi specializing in gaming class cards.Â While nvidia and ATi do make integrated video cards their specialty is making dedicated cards for gaming purposes.Â An integrated card is fine for basic office or home use but if any gaming is going to be done you will find it lacking.
These days a decent middle-end card can be had for around $150 which is capable of handling just about all games at a resolution of at least 1280 x 1024 which is low in todayâ€™s world.Â A good card will cost you about $300 and will be able to handle all games at higher resolutions though some graphic details may get cut, the game will be more than playable.Â In that area you should be covered for todayâ€™s games and games to come for two years but after that point youâ€™ll want to consider an upgrade.
Most modern cards will offer you a choice of ports.Â VGA ports (the older connector that was used for ancient CRT monitors) are on the way out. The most common now is either dual DVI ports or a DVI port with an HDMI port.Â Some of the cards like the All-in-Wonder will offer you a few more choices but plan on having DVI or HDMI.
Computers that come with only built-in graphics may have only a VGA port, but some are starting to ship with HDMI instead.
If youâ€™re buying a computer to use as a home theatre system, make sure the video card is capable of decoding high-def video are important.Â All modern video cards are capable of doing so, but choppy playback can result if it is not fast enough.Â It should have a DVI/HDMI port, optical audio out (but make sure your speaker system supports that before springing for it) and a TV tuner.
DVD burners have become so common now that it would be difficult to find a computer without one.Â They are also dirt cheap, $25 will get you an internal DVDRW drive and for a few more dollars you can get one with lightscribe.Â Lightscribe will enable you to burn your own (black and white) images onto the surface of supported discs.Â DO NOT use the lightscribe feature on non-lightscribe discs.
Now that Blu-Ray drives have won over the competing HD-DVD format you may want to considering getting one if you are building a high-end, home theatre or video editing system.
A Blu-Ray burner and DVDRW combo drive will cost around $250 when purchased individually but manufacturers such as HP have offer them for as low as $99 when built into a computer.Â A Blu-Ray reader-only and DVDRW combo drive cost about $140.Â Whether or not this is important is down to personal preference but the blank discs are still relatively expensive.Â A 25-pack of blank Blu-Ray (BD-R) discs cost $170 on the low end.
There is never too much hard drive space
The bigger, the better.Â The most basic computers will include a 160GB hard drive, sufficient for home use but far from what a music/movie/game buff would require.Â Shoot for at least a single 500GB hard drive but aim higher if it is a gaming or media system.Â
Some gamers prefer that the boot drive is a faster 10,000RPM drive in which case youâ€™ll find that is limited to 74GB to 150GB.Â Plan on three hard drives if that is the case so there is still plenty of room for all those games/movies/music.
Itâ€™s easier to fill than it looks, trust me.Â Get as much storage as the budget will allow.Â You can always add more later if needed/desired.
Almost every computer will include a card reader for reading the memory cards from digital cameras.Â This used to be optional but has become a relatively standard feature over the years.
The faster, the better.Â Only the home/office user will not be concerned with processor speed.Â This will matter for gaming systems, video editing systems and the like.Â The â€œgigahertzâ€ war is pretty much over and now itâ€™s about cramming more cores into smaller spaces.
Only the cheapest desktops now have lowly dual core processors.Â Most now have a basic quad-core and AMD offers triple-core processors (which should be passed over).Â Intelâ€™s new Core i7 processors are the coolest, most efficient and fastest processors built to date.Â The front side bus has been replaced with Intelâ€™s QPI (quick path interconnect) which speeds communication between the processor and chipset.Â If youâ€™re lost, it makes the computer just a tad faster.
If the budget affords, you canâ€™t go wrong with an Intel processor and you certainly canâ€™t go wrong with getting a Core i7 processor.Â No way, no how.Â If not then the older Core Quad processors (the Q6600 and up) will keep you humming along for a couple years.Â But if bleeding edge performance right here and now is what youâ€™re after then itâ€™s Core i7 all the way.
Of course, in a year weâ€™ll all be saying what a primitive piece of junk the Core i7 was.Â Such is life in the world of computers.
This whole bit as about speed so something should be said about that.Â Almost every single quad core processor will operate at 2.0GHz and above.Â The difference these days is going to be how much cache the processor has and how fast it can address memory but the days where we ogled over pure speeds of the processor itself is over.
The more cache, the better.Â The faster the memory, the better.Â In both these areas, higher numbers equal better.Â It really is that simple.
This is what the computer uses to store running programs and like a lot of things on this list, the more, the better.Â Even the cheapest computer includes 1GB of memory.Â That is the bare minimum for running Vista which doesnâ€™t really run well at all.
A smattering of computers will include 2GB but most will have between 4GB and 8GB these days.Â It is better to have paired sets of memory so you have the dual channel communication (which is faster).Â It is possible to have other odd sets such as 1x1GB and 2x1GB but you do limit the speed of the memory when doing that.
The newer Core i7 processor on supported motherboards will have triple channel memory.Â This means you can have just about any odd configuration of memory without any reduction in speed.
Integrated sound used to be downright awful.Â Thankfully this has improved greatly over the years and it really comes down to how many outputs you want.Â Most motherboards come built-in with multichannel outputs and at least one optical output.
Gamers and music enthusiasts will still insist on getting a dedicated sound card and at $60 for a decent sound card, Iâ€™m more in favor of than I am against.Â Home users are not likely to appreciate the difference.Â It would only really be noticeable on a higher end speaker system and surprisingly not many people want to spend $500+ on speakers for a computer.
You only need to worry about this if you are building your own system.Â The motherboard must be matched to the processor and slot type.Â For example an AMD slot 939 processor must be matched to a motherboard that supports AMD slot 939.Â This is an older slot type but the analogy remains the same.Â Intel processors cannot be used on AMD motherboards and vice versa.
The only other real differentiation is what kind of graphics is included on the board itself.Â Either it will or it wonâ€™t.Â If you are going to buy a dedicated video card then you can avoid getting a board with integrated video.Â Nvidia does offer a feature called â€œhybrid SLiâ€ which uses the lower end dedicated cards in conjunction with the integrated chip â€“ speed gains are not significant and it only works with lower end cards.
There are other features such as RAID for data backups, built-in wireless and warranty from the manufacturer.Â More than anything, Asus and Gigabyte tend to stand behind each and every product they sell.Â As well as the easiest motherboard BIOS and driver updates I have yet to find, itâ€™s all pretty much automatic.
Choosing a modem, monitor, keyboard, mouse
Modems (meaning broadband modems) are usually provided by your ISP though you can buy them from computer shops.Â Unless your ISP approves (and they probably wonâ€™t) avoid buying your own modem.Â Sure the ISP may be trying to squeeze some money out of you by selling you equipment, but often the ISP-supplied modems really do work best. For the sake of simplicity and ease-of-setup, just use what the ISP provides you with.
Unless you havenâ€™t owned a previous desktop or donâ€™t yet have a flat screen then read this section otherwise skip ahead.Â You will want to go for a widescreen monitor at least 19â€ in size but if you can afford it go for the larger 22â€ or 24â€ LCD displays which offer higher resolutions.Â Here is some more information on buying an LCD monitor.
Wired keyboard/mouse or wireless keyboard/mouse?Â A matched pair or separate?Â This comes down to personal preference.Â Some say it is better to get a wired mouse and if you are in an area that has a lot of interference (say in a studio setting) then wired is the way to go.Â I happen to shy away from wires so I like wireless stuff and itâ€™s very hard to go wrong with Logitech.
Using older peripherals
If you have something that uses an older 25-pin parallel port and there is a newer version of the same that has USB my recommendation is to just replace that old piece of junk.Â If itâ€™s something that canâ€™t be replaced with modern equipment then get the new computer anyway and keep the old stuff for using that one thing.Â I donâ€™t like old stuff and sometimes itâ€™s just time to move on especially in the cases of something so old that it still has a parallel port.
Windows Vista also has a tendency not to like old stuff which attracted a lot of negativity from users.Â Oh well, as I said, sometimes itâ€™s just time to move on.
You may have some luck with older USB devices and any PS/2 keyboard or mouse will still work but if all you have is a PS/2 keyboard or mouse I would say itâ€™s time to replace that.Â If you ask me PS/2 should have been phased out years ago or the second that USB came about.
Basically using older peripherals is getting harder and harder in this day and age so itâ€™s just better, and maybe easier, to move on to something newer, shinier and possibly backlit. Sorry folks, thatâ€™s just how it is.
Warranty, service and support
There are those of you that have a friend or family member that is very good at fixing and repairing any computer ailment that you can conjure up.Â You do not need extended warranty or support.Â Then there are those of you who donâ€™t, in which case an extended warranty or service plan could be a prudent thing to have.
â€œMom and popâ€ computer shops may offer â€œextended warrantiesâ€ but they may go out of business and will not be there in a few years to support the warranty.Â This has happened to a few companies on line, as well as to the third-party company providing the warranty.Â You will not get your money back.
Retail chains like Best Buy will be around for a few years, so you can be a little more confident about the extended warranties you may be offered.
If youâ€™re buying direct from a manufacturer, youâ€™ll find that they also usually offer some kind of extended warranty with onsite service.Â For example, Dell has begun offering US-based support for $99 per year with a new system, or $12.95 per month for everyone else.
Operating system disks
With any pre-built or custom made system you will find that operating system recovery DVDs have become optional.Â Most will include them for a nominal fee ($10 to $25).Â All of them will allow you to burn your own recovery DVDs using utilities included with the computer when it boots for the first time.Â You can opt to do it then or have it remind you later.Â The sooner you do, the better and make sure to label them.Â Usually two blank DVDR or DVDRW discs will be required.
Hopefully this article has given you the confidence you need to go out an buy the right computer for you. Good luck and have fun.