How to buy the best Desktop PC
By Michael Passingham
Buying a desktop PC is a big money and space commitment. We'll help you work out your priorities, decide how much to spend and how to start your search.
If you're dead-set on buying a desktop PC for your home office or gaming den, there are some important factors to consider.
Make the wrong purchase and you could end up lumbered with a computer that's slow, has a poor-quality screen or is overpowered for your needs.
In this guide, we'll run through the specifications to look for when buying a computer for different uses, along with the pros and cons of desktops versus all-in-one PCs. We also look at the accessories you need to complete your setup.
Ready to buy? Check out the best desktop PCs from our tests.
In this article:
- What specs should I look for in a desktop PC?
- Desktop PC vs all-in-one
- How to buy a monitor for your desktop PC
- How to buy peripherals
It's easy to get bogged down in numbers and specifications when looking at desktops, so if you know how much you want to spend and what sort of things you want to do on your machine, the specifications we recommend below should get you on the right track.
- A basic PC for email, documents and web browsing: If you only need the very basics, you can make do with a PC with an Intel Pentium or Core i3 processor, or an AMD A8, A10 or Ryzen 3 processor. Typically you'll get 1TB of storage with this, too, so there will be plenty of room to store all your files. Make sure you get at least 4GB of Ram (preferably 8GB if you can), which will help Windows 10 run a lot more smoothly
- A PC for lots of multi-tasking or photo-editing: If you like to do a lot of things quickly, you'll want an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 processor. You'll also want 8GB of Ram and a solid-state drive (SSD) to make things feel really sprightly. Read our guide on Intel processors and SSDs to better understand the difference these choices can make.
- A PC for video editing and gaming: You'll need all of the above recommendation as a minimum, along with a dedicated graphics card that will assist with video editing and make your games run more smoothly. Our guide to gaming laptops runs through the reasons why this is important and our guide to AMD, Intel and Nvidia explains what to expect from each brand. If you're going to be editing 4K video and need it done quickly, consider an Intel Core i7, AMD Ryzen 7 or Intel Core i9 processor and at least 16, if not 32GB of Ram.
If you're looking for a computer to use primarily at home or in the office, the choice will come down to either a traditional desktop PC or an all-in-one PC.
There are big differences between desktop PCs and all-in-ones to consider. Most obvious is the form factor. A desktop PC is what many consider to be the traditional 'tower' computer, where a big black or grey box is connected to a separate monitor screen, keyboard and mouse. An all-in-one is essentially a large screen with the internal components of the computer sitting behind it. You'll still need to plug in a keyboard and mouse, though, but these are more often than not supplied in the box with an all-in-one.
Outside of whether you want a traditional 'box' and separate monitor and accessories, it's the specifications (and what you’ll pay for them) that are the key difference between desktops and all-in-ones.
If you're regularly on the move, then you may wish to pick up a laptop. Browse our laptop reviews to find the right model for you.
Advantages of a tower desktop PC
You'll find that they come in various shapes and sizes, from large bulky hulks that need to sit under your desk, to more discreet and stylish models that can be tucked away.
- More customisable - The big plus-point of a desktop PC is that the large, tower-style models can be easily adapted to suit your needs. You can pick the monitor you want and make more significant changes internally, such as adding more Ram, a new graphics card, or a more powerful processor. The upshot of this that a desktop can be kept ticking over longer than an all-in-one; you can replace the bits you need without having to get rid of the whole device.
- Can be cheaper - If you already have a monitor and a keyboard and mouse, then a desktop PC can be a good value option compared to an all-in-one. Generally speaking, it can be cheaper to buy a powerful Core i5 or i7-processor desktop, compared to the equivalent on an all-in-one.
- More powerful - While the basic specs might not look all that different, larger tower desktop PCs are generally a little faster than all-in-ones. That is because their internal components have more room to expel heat, meaning they can run faster for longer. The components inside of an all-in-one are usually more akin to what you'll find in a laptop.
Disadvantages of a desktop PC
- Sometimes bulky - Not all desktop PCs are created equal, and we’ve tested some models that managed to pack their workings into a small box than can be easily hidden on a desk. However, you’ll find that there are plenty of bulky desktop towers out there too, so make sure you know the measurements of anything you’re buying, especially if ordering online.
- Separate accessory costs - What comes in the box with your desktop depends on where you order it from. Some come with keyboard and mouse, while others will require you to purchase a monitor, speakers, and peripherals separately. While this does grant you the freedom to pick the ones you want, it does lack the convenience of an all-in-one where everything you need is in the box.
- Not as user-friendly - While we’ve come a long way since the days of home PCs being the reserve of the technologically minded, if you’re skittish around tech, you might be slightly put off by the concept of a connecting up a desktop or custom-choosing its inner workings, compared to the ‘plug and play’ nature of an all-in-one.
Advantages of an all-in-one PC
Gaining popularity in recent years, an all-in-one is essentially a PC with all the workings conveniently placed in the screen. There’s no separate tower to contend with, and they’re easy to set up. They come with a keyboard and mouse, and the speakers are usually integrated into the device.
- Easy set up - There’s very little fuss involved in setting up an all-in-one PC, with most simply requiring you to take it out of the box, place it where you want it, and turn it on. It’s a good option if you don’t want to be bogged down by cables and you want to get up and running quickly.
- Space saving - If space is at a premium, an all-in-one can be a good fit as you'll only need to consider where to place the screen, and don’t have to house a traditional ‘tower’ too. This makes them more flexible in the home, and also a degree more portable. While you won’t want to take it on the train with you, it’s much easier to move an all-in-one from one spot in your home to another.
Disadvantages of an all-in-one PC
- Cheap accessories - While all-in-ones do come with accessories in the box and built in speakers, our tests tend to reveal that they’re rarely great, and usually rather basic. A desktop PC might allow you to choose the peripherals you would like, but with an all-in-one, you’re stuck with those it comes with, unless you want to shell out and purchase additional accessories.
- More expensive - You can end up paying extra for convenience. While there are benefits to picking up an all-in-one, you’re often left paying extra. You could find that an equivalently powered desktop PC is considerably cheaper, even once the monitor and accessories have been taken into account.
- Less powerful - as mentioned above, they often use laptop-grade components instead of more powerful desktop-grade ones. This is fine, but if absolute performance is a must, you should opt for a big tower instead.
If you’re buying a desktop PC, then you’ll also have to purchase a monitor to go with it. Modern monitors tend to be slim, power-efficient and crisply detailed, but there are various specs to contend with.
Monitors vary wildly in price, with the top end ‘8K’ models priced highly due to their super-detailed screens. But, you should be able to find a reasonably priced model if you know what you’re looking for.
Screen resolution is key when buying a monitor, and should be your primary concern. Anything that is less than Full High Definition (1920 x 1080 pixels) should be rejected, but you’re unlikely to find a modern day monitor with lower resolution.
Generally speaking, the higher the number of pixels, the sharper the image. If you’re using your desktop PC for mostly office tasks, Full HD will be more than enough, but if you’re doing a lot of graphics work, or playing games, you’ll notice a big difference by stepping up to a ‘4K’ or ‘ultra HD’ screen.
How far away you sit from the monitor is also key, as the closer you are, the more likely you’ll be to spot lower resolution. It’s also important to remember that if you choose a higher resolution, the objects on the screen (such as program icons) will become smaller. You can delve into the PC settings to increase their default sizes, however.
Resolution isn't everything though - run through this checklist before you buy to make sure you've ticked all the boxes.
- Check the stand - Can it be adjusted to suit your set up? Some can be raised or lowered, but not all, so you’ll need to make sure that it is suitable for your needs.
- Ports - Some monitors have additional ports built in, such as USB. This can be a great help if you're in need of an extra connection or two.
- Connections - Check that the monitor you are looking at can be easily connected to your desktop PC. If the connections are different, you may need to buy an adapter (or just a different monitor).
- Speakers - Some monitors will come with built-in speakers. Given the limited dimensions of a slim screen, these are unlikely to be as impressive as any bought separately, so consider budgeting for extra speakers if sound matters.
- Touchscreen - If you’re running Windows 10, a touchscreen might be useful. Bear in mind the distance you sit from your monitor - if it’s further than an arm’s length, then a touchscreen will be awkward to use.
- Using a TV - Monitors and TV’s are traditionally designed for watching in two different ways - one close up, the other from a distance. However, with the resolution of TVs improving significantly in recent years, it’s feasible to use a small TV as a monitor. Modern desktop PCs all have HDMI connections, so should work just fine connected to a TV.
- Viewing Angle - If you’re sat directly on from your monitor, the viewing angle will be of little concern, but if you want to share what’s on the screen with others on a regular basis, look for a model with a wide viewing angle. If you’re looking at a monitor in store, move around it to see if the image darkens or becomes washed out when you’re not looking at it head on.
Once you’ve bought your new desktop PC, you’ll need to pick up some accessories, depending on what was included in the box. These will include a keyboard, mouse and speakers, as well as a monitor.
While there are a wide selection of peripherals for all budgets, it’s important to consider your own requirements and not be tempted by flashy products that you won’t make use of.
How to buy a keyboard
Wired or wireless - Most of us tend to use a keyboard in the same position, so it may not matter if you’re tethered by a wire. However, it’s always nice to cut out clutter, so one fewer wire can help keep your work station tidy. A good wireless keyboard can be more expensive than a wired option, but gives a freedom that you won’t get with a wired one.
Ergonomic keyboards - Ergonomic keyboards are designed to feel more natural to type on, and can be a boon if you spend hours at a time typing. They tend to put less stress on the wrists and forearms, helping to cut down on chronic pain and repetitive strain. They take some getting used to, as the button placement is slightly different to a traditional keyboard. If possible, try one out before buying.
UK keyboard - Keyboards have different layouts depending on the country they are intended for. This can be as small a change as the placement of the @ symbol, to the ordering of the letters being rearranged. Check that the keyboard is UK standard, especially if you’re buying online.
Media keys - For those using their PCs to play music and movies, a keyboard with dedicated media buttons can be extremely convenient. The inclusion of play, pause and volume buttons saves having to navigate to the program with the mouse.
How to buy a PC mouse
Wired or wireless - A wireless mouse is arguably more useful if it’s being used with a laptop, but if you want a wire-free work surface, then they can be a great choice for a desktop, too. As the power drain on a wireless mouse is low, you’ll find that the battery life is excellent, with one set lasting you for months. Some models are rechargeable too.
How many buttons - Most desktop mouse designs have two buttons and a scroll wheel. However, with the introduction of programmable buttons on more advanced models, there can be huge convenience to being able to add your most used keys to the mouse.
Ergonomic mouse - You’ll be using you mouse a lot, so it’s important that it feels comfortable. Ergonomic mouse designs pay special attention to the contours of your hand, with natural button placement. They’re not for everyone, and can feel a bit strange initially, but can be useful for eliminating some conditions, such as RSI.
Left-handed mouse - Most computer mouse designs will work with either hand, but this isn’t always the case, especially for specially designed ergonomic models. If you’re left handed, make sure that the one you pick feels comfortable.