Buying the Right Desktop PC for Your Needs

What to consider when shopping for a desktop PC

Desktop Computer with Mouse
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Before you buy a new desktop computer, it's important to understand how factors such as the CPU and RAM affect system performance. You must also take into account any peripherals you'll need, such as connector ports and optical drives. Here's an overview of factors to consider when shopping for a desktop PC.

Information in this article applies broadly to all desktop PCs. Check individual product specifications before making a purchase.

Evaluate Your Needs

A computer's specifications ("specs") are determined by your needs. For example, how fast your PC needs to be depends on what you plan to do with it. For a gaming PC, you'll want a fast processor and sufficient RAM as well as a powerful graphics card. If you plan to use your computer for browsing the web and simple productivity tasks, such as word processing, then a budget desktop should suffice.

Take a moment to evaluate how you use your computer and determine the requirements called for by any specialized software.

Desktop Processors (CPUs)

While there are many different desktop processors, or CPUs, most come from just two manufacturers: AMD and Intel. Intel processors generally offer better performance, but they are more expensive than AMD processors. However, the main difference between processors relates to the number of cores they have and their relative speed.

Most manufacturers have a performance rating system for their desktop PCs, but comparing across brands isn't always easy. Your best bet is to look for PCs in your price range and then research the processors to make sure they are powerful enough for your needs.

Memory (RAM)

Memory, or RAM, plays a big role in the speed and performance of a PC. The higher the RAM, the better the performance. Experts recommend at least 8GB of memory, but 16GB offers better long-term performance. For gaming and other power-computing uses, 16GB is the minimum you should consider.

Although DDR3 memory was the standard for desktop computers for many years, DDR4 is now preferred. When buying memory, try to buy as few DIMMs as possible to allow for future memory upgrades if needed.

DIMM (dual in-line memory module) is a module that contains one or several RAM chips on a small circuit board with pins that connect it to the computer motherboard.

Hard Drives

While some desktop computers still rely on the traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), most newer PCs come with solid-state drives (SSDs) for storing and caching data. SSDs are preferable since they're faster, more efficient, and more durable than HDDs.

There are two main elements to consider when shopping for hard drives: size and speed. A modern desktop hard drive should have at least 1TB of storage space. In terms of speed, most run at 7200rpm, but there are some green or variable-speed drives that consume less energy. A few high-performance 10,000rpm drives are available, such as the M.2 and SATA Express. Most motherboards now support RAID if you want to install multiple hard drives on your machine.

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives or Disks. The solution is a way of creating more storage at a lower cost.

Optical Drives (CD/DVD/Blu-ray)

Most desktops still come equipped with a DVD burner, but some small form factor PCs are doing away with optical drives. If you want to watch new movies in HD, your desktop will need a Blu-ray drive. If the computer you want doesn't have any optical drives, you can always purchase external CD, DVD, and Blu-ray players.

Video/Graphics Cards

If you don't play PC games with 3D graphics, then you don't have to worry about a dedicated graphics card. Gamers should consider a DirectX 11 card with at least 2GB of onboard memory. There are also budget video cards if you're just interested in accelerating non-3D tasks. Factors to consider include performance, the amount of memory on the card, the output connectors, and the version of Direct X supported.

External Peripheral Connectors

Check to see how many and what type of external ports are available on the computer for use with future peripherals. There are a variety of high-speed peripheral connectors now available. It is best to get a PC with at least six USB ports. Other higher-speed connectors include eSATA and Thunderbolt, which can be especially useful for external storage. Many desktops also include SD card readers.

Desktop Monitors

While there are all-in-one PCs with built-in monitors, you still need to consider the quality of the screen. All monitors today are based on LCD technology, and the only major difference between them is size and cost. Some other factors, such as color accuracy, may be important if you plan to use the desktop for graphics work. 24-inch LCDs are the most common, thanks to their affordability and support for full 1080p high-definition video. Larger screens, such as 27-inch LCDs and 4K PC Displays, are also dropping in price.