Choosing the best home and office desktop PCs: Buyer’s Guide review

How to choose the right specs and get the best deal for your money
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While it’s possible to bag yourself a bargain by building your own PC, most users – and particularly those new to the world of computing – prefer to buy a ready-made system. If you’re looking to pick one of these up, then there’s good news: the lightning-quick progress of PC technology means that you can get very respectable hardware for a fraction of what the same gear might have cost just a few years ago.

Getting the best deal for your money still requires a little bit of research, and that’s where ITReviews comes in, guiding you through the decisions you’ll need to make.

Knowing what you want
As with any purchasing decision, the first thing to do is to figure out your requirements. Will you be playing games, or is your PC mainly going to be a work machine? Do you do any digital photography or video editing that might require more than average storage? Do you need a monitor with it, or are you re-using an older display?

Wherever you go to buy your system, always remember your key requirements. Don’t be swayed by the siren song of the bundle: it might seem like a bargain to get a PC that comes with multifunction printer and ‘hundreds of pounds’ worth of software thrown in for free, but you may just regret it. Bundles are the industry’s way of getting rid of stock that it can’t sell any other way – and the chances are you’ll soon find yourself replacing the hardware and software you got ‘free’ in favour of more capable accessories.

That said, you’ll need to ensure you put enough money aside for the extras when working out your budget. If you’re handy with a screwdriver – or have a techie friend – don’t be afraid to look at a cheaper system let down by a single weak component, as many warranties aren’t affected by changing simple things like upgrading the memory or adding a dedicated graphics card.

As with our other buyers’ guides, we’ll take a look at three main buying categories to help you figure out what kind of system you need to buy: budget, mainstream, and premium.

As a user on a budget, you want a system that’s as cheap as possible without sacrificing usability. You don’t care much for gaming, but if the PC is too slow you’ll get frustrated and wish you’d spent that little bit more.

Playing games is one of the activities that gives your PC the most rigorous performance workout – and at the budget level, any system you buy is likely to come up a little short when faced with this task. While some might be salvageable by adding in a new graphics card, you can expect to the experience to be awkward and fiddly.

Small form factor
With that said, there’s no reason why buying on a budget means that you can’t get a respectable system for everyday use. The launch of the Intel Atom processor, designed for compact PC systems and portable ‘netbooks’, has led to a surge in low-cost low-power devices that offer a remarkably comprehensive list of features, such as the Acer Aspire Revo and Zotac ZBox ranges or the NT-535 from Foxconn.

Zotac - Zbox HD-ND22
Compact PC: Zotac’s Zbox HD-ND22

What such tiny, low-costs systems lack, however, is upgradeability. With no room for extra hardware, what you buy is what you get. Worse, most don’t include optical drives such as CD writers, DVD or Blu-ray drives – so you’d better budget for an external USB device, as you’ll almost certainly need to install software from a CD or DVD at some point.

Full-size desktop PCs
If you don’t particularly need the savings on space offered by Atom-based systems, full-size PCs featuring older Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon II chips are often available for much the same price. If you want to get your hands on systems that use Intel’s latest Core i3 range of chips, however, you can expect the price to rise considerably – putting the latest technology out of reach of the budget buyer and firmly in the mainstream category.

Memory (RAM)
Don’t consider a system with less than 2 gigabytes (GB) of system memory, also known as RAM. The usual type of RAM seen on desktop PCs these days is known as DDR3, and comes in a range of speeds, generally from 1066 megahertz (MHz) upwards. For preference look towards 3GB or more. While Windows 7, provided with the majority of PCs on the market at the current time, requires significantly less memory than the previous version, Windows Vista, 2GB is the bare minimum if you’re looking for an enjoyable computing experience.

Storage – hard disk and optical drives
Systems in the budget price range usually come with a 250GB hard drive, which should be enough for even the most avid digital photographer. Better yet, almost all systems – with the exception of the small form factor Atom boxes mentioned above – also include a DVD rewriter (DVD-RW) drive, allowing you to read and write to DVDs and CDs at no additional cost.

If you’re buying in a bundle – and we really advise you don’t – you can expect to get a 17in or 19in flat-panel TFT monitor, but be prepared for slow refresh rates and a slightly blurrier image than you could get buying the display separately. Look out for digital DVI and HDMI connection, rather than the older analogue VGA.

For a system in the Budget price range, expect to pay between £250 and £350, plus another £70 to £100 for a suitable monitor.

A mainstream user does a bit of casual gaming, some general office work, plus a few tasks for which a slow machine is ill-prepared such as video editing – an increasingly popular hobby, thanks to the recent explosion in low-cost, high-definition digital camcorders.

The good news is that the Intel’s latest Core-i3 and Core-i5 processor range is designed specifically for the mainstream buyer. Packing technology that would be unheard of just a few generations ago, Intel’s newest chips offer a significant performance advantage over those from rival AMD – although you can expect the balance to be redressed in the near future, as AMD launches some interseting new technology of its own.

Processor choice
For now, we’d advise looking at systems featuring the Core-i3 and Core-i5 processors. For your money, you’ll get either two or four processing cores – making it significantly less painful to run multiple applications simultaneously than it was on older single-core systems. In particular, look for systems based around the Core i5-750, which includes four 2.66GHz processing cores and a massive 8MB of cache memory.

System memory (RAM)
When shopping for a mainstream computer, we’d advise you not to settle for less than 4GB of RAM. The memory market is experiencing a bit of a slump at the moment, and prices are as low as they’ve ever been. If a box-shifter is trying to sell you a 2GB or 3GB system, walk away – you’ll almost certainly be able to find a 4GB or 6GB system in your budget elsewhere.

Storage – hard disk
Expect between 500GB and 1 terabyte (1TB) of hard drive space in the mainstream market. As with memory, recent advances in technology have drastically dropped the cost of high-capacity storage drives – and if you do find yourself running out of space, additional drives cost very little to add to a system at a later date.

Dedicated graphics card
Unlike budget computers, most mainstream systems come with a dedicated graphics card – and while they’re unlikely to be the flagship products, they offer additional features missing from on-board graphics plus enough heft to be able to play most modern games. At this level, there’s little to choose between offerings from AMD or rival Nvidia, but try to avoid any that proclaim Intel HD graphics if you’re going to be gaming.

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Mainstream PCs often come with a dedicated graphics card.

Optical drives
As with the budget category, you can expect a DVD-RW drive to come as standard. Sadly, while Blu-ray drives – which offer a significantly increased capacity over DVDs, as well as the option to watch high-definition films on your PC – are dropping in price, they’re still rare to see in this price category.

To take advantage of the additional graphics potential of a mainstream system, try to budget for a slightly larger monitor – a 19in model should be considered a minimum requirement, and try to find one that has a refresh rate of under five milliseconds (5ms) if you’re going to be watching films or playing games.

Also an option among mainstream PCs is an ‘all-in-one’ system that’s effectively built into the back of a monitor, such as the HP Touchsmart series. These tend to be a little on the pricey side, though – and bear in mind that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to upgrade any of their components when they become long in the tooth.

For a Mainstream system, you can expect to pay between £500 and £750, plus between £100 and £150 for a good quality monitor to go with it.

As a premium buyer, the chances are you probably don’t care much about price – only performance. Almost certainly a gamer, you’re looking for something with significant power under the hood to play the latest games and churn through complex calculations in the minimum time possible.

Processor choice
As with mainstream computing, the only recommendation to make at the moment is to look at systems based around Intel’s latest Core-i7 series of processors – in particular, those code-named ‘Sandy Bridge’. Featuring performance that rival AMD just can’t match at present, they offer the best bang for your buck.

Although rare in the market for pre-built systems, keep an eye out for Intel Core-i7 models with a ‘K’ suffix, like the Core-i7-875K. These feature an unlocked bus, which allows users to ‘overclocking- or run the chip at significantly higher speeds than it is officially rated at, to squeeze the very last drop of performance out of the system.

Even if you can’t find a system that meets your needs featuring an unlocked processor, make sure that you pick a model with at least four cores. Many software developers are starting to pick up on the possibilities offered by multi-core systems, and while current games struggle to make use of more than two processing cores that’s likely to change in the very near future.

System memory (RAM)
If a premium system comes with less than 6GB of RAM, you can discount it immediately. If the manufacturer has cut corners with the memory, they will almost certainly have skimped in other, less obvious areas too. 8GB or 12GB is nice to have, but don’t make it a must-have – 6GB is plenty for most users.

A 1TB hard drive is a minimum to expect from a premium system, with some manufacturers choosing to add in advanced features such as RAID, which stands for ‘Redundant Arrays of Independent Disks’, enabling data to be mirrored on separate drives for added security, or spanned across multiple drives to increase performance by accessing the disks simultaneously. If you’re spending enough, you may even find that your system comes with a solid-state drive (SSD), which offers a significant performance boost – but expect to pay an equally significant premium for the pleasure of ultra-fast load times.

Graphics card
The only time you should even think about buying a premium system that doesn’t include a dedicated graphics card from AMD or Nvidia is if you’re planning to purchase one separately – or even more than one, by using AMD’s CrossFireX or Nvidia’s SLI to chain multiple graphics cards together for maximum performance.

Watch out for manufacturers that use last-generation cards with seemingly impressive features – while AMD’s Radeon HD 5000-series and Nvidia’s GeForce 400-series are respectable enough, the latest Radeon HD 6000-series and GeForce 500-series boards are significantly improved.

Optical drives
A DVD-RW is a given in the premium category, but you can also expect a Blu-ray drive thrown in – although many manufacturers are choosing to add read-only Blu-ray drives, good enough to play films on but incapable of recording onto blank Blu-ray discs. Although writable Blu-ray media is expensive at the moment, prices are likely to drop in the near future – so if you think you’ll be wanting to burn Blu-rays, check that the drive isn’t just a reader.

Very few systems in the premium category come with a bundled monitor, and while you could buy a 19in TFT to go with your new system you’d be wasting all that graphics power on a monitor with a resolution that really doesn’t do it justice. Instead, look for at least a 24in display – and if you can afford it, a panel that uses ‘in-plane switching’ (IPS) technology – the additional cost is more than made up for by significantly improved colour reproduction and better viewing angles.

FX2490HD Review

Look for a display of at least 24in to make the most of your cutting-edge graphics.

You may find that your system comes with bundled 3D shutter glasses. If so, you’ll need a monitor that can manage a refresh rate of at least 120Hz to take advantage of them – anything less and you can expect to rapidly suffer from headaches and eyestrain from the flicker.

Machines in the Premium category start at around £800, but if you’re looking for a top-end system with the latest graphics card technology, expect to pay between £1,500 and £2,000. A 24in monitor to match is likely to cost around £150 to £200, but if you want the extra quality IPS technology offers, expect that to increase to £450.