With so many options to choose from, the toughest part about buying a new desktop PC is deciding which one to go with. The task gets much simpler if you first identify what you’ll primarily be using the computer for. From there, it’s just a matter of narrowing down the choice based on which options are important to you.
Table of Contents
It’s always been understood that the three most important components you’ll find in any desktop PC are the processor, RAM and storage. Traditionally, these three have had the biggest impact on the overall performance (and price) of a computer. Today, the GPU needs to be added to that mix. With the popularity of 4K Ultra HD monitors, virtual reality and the ability of some software to utilize a graphics card for additional processing power, the GPU or graphics card is no longer a side conversation specific to PC gaming.
The processor (or CPU) is at the heart of every desktop computer. It’s the CPU that executes code and controls all the inputs and outputs. Your choice of processor will have a big impact on whether your PC will be best suited to basic tasks, or will be a high performance powerhouse that can chew through data and multi-task with even the most demanding applications. Generally speaking, more cores are better and when comparing similar CPUs, high maximum clock speed means faster performance.
Dual-core CPUs are designed to offer a combination of affordability, energy efficiency and the ability to perform basic computing tasks. You’ll find dual-core CPUs like the Intel Core i3 and AMD Sempron 3000 powering many budget desktop PCs. Dual-core CPUs provide the processing power needed for multitasking with basic applications, web surfing, media playback and other common computing tasks.
Quad-core CPUs are considered to be the sweet spot for desktop PCs. There’s a huge range of options to choose from, including the Intel Core i5, Intel Core i7 and AMD Athlon 5000. With quad-core performance, you gain the processing power needed for more intensive applications, large-scale number crunching and PC gaming. Most desktop PCs will be equipped with at least an Intel Core i5 CPU, while gaming PCs and desktop computers used for demanding tasks like video editing or 3D modelling will often be equipped with a Core i7.
For the ultimate in processing performance, some desktop PCs are equipped with CPUs that have six or even eight cores. Intel’s Xeon and the AMD FX are the two main examples of 8-core desktop CPUs. Most people won’t ever need this kind of power, but if you need workstation-class capabilities, these are the CPUs you should be looking at.
RAM (or Random Access Memory) is where your PC stores data the CPU needs to read and write quickly. If you don’t have sufficient RAM, you run into issues where multi-tasking doesn’t work well and you may be unable to install and run current operating systems. Another symptom of not having enough RAM is slow overall performance. So how much RAM do you need?
Current Windows and Mac operating systems require a minimum of 2GB of memory, but 4GB is a more realistic amount for basic functionality. The current sweet spot for most desktops PCs—both Mac and Windows—is 8GB. With 8GB of RAM, you have sufficient memory for running productivity apps, having multiple bowser windows open, and multitasking. And you have a buffer for future operating system upgrades, which will likely have higher minimum configurations.
If your PC will be used for high demand applications such as gaming, editing video, or working with large spreadsheets, 16GB of RAM would be a more suitable configuration. One of the advantages of a desktop PC is that should you find your system is consistently low on RAM, adding more is as easy as opening the case and installing another stick or two.
One of the areas that has changed most dramatically for desktop PCs in the past several years is storage. SSDs (or Solid State Drives) have been popular with laptops because they offer an incredible speed boost compared to traditional HDDs (Hard Disk Drives), but they were too expensive for desktop use—where much higher storage capacities are typical.
The price of SSDs has come down significantly, while new options have become more popular. HDDs are still a must-have for most desktop PCs. With 1TB or more of storage, they provide the capacity needed for current multimedia files, including HD movie files and game installs. But manufacturers are increasingly offering the option of a small SSD in their desktop PCs as well. This combination offers a huge performance gain by storing the operating system and commonly used files on the SSD while using the HDD for mass storage.
Another option is hybrid drives, like Seagate’s Momentus XT. They offer the same basic effect by physically combining a small SSD and a large HDD in a single drive.
How much storage do you need in a desktop PC? A good rule of thumb is to get as much storage as you can afford (you’ll eventually use it all), but the good news is that with desktop PCs, installing additional drives as needed is an easy fix. The chart below will give you an idea of storage requirements based on common file sizes.
|Capacity||PC Game Installs||Full HD Movies|
|Based on average PC game installation||Based on average 1080p movie file of 5 GB|
|Don’t forget to save room for the average OS install of 25GB||Don’t forget to save room for the average OS install of 25GB|
To learn more about storage check out these resources:
The GPU is now more important than ever when it comes to choosing the right desktop PC. For basic computing—running productivity software, web browsing, watching Full HD streaming video or even driving a 4K monitor—integrated graphics (like Intel HD) that are part of the CPU is usually sufficient.
However, if you plan to use your desktop PC for video gaming or virtual reality, a dedicated video card is a requirement. If you plan to regularly use any applications that can take advantage of video card acceleration (the classic example is video editing software, where acceleration can dramatically speed up tasks like rendering), then a video card is a worthy investment. Once again, because this is a desktop PC, it’s a relatively easy task to open the case and install a new video card yourself.
Which Operating System?
Outside of the hardware basics, there’s another key question to answer: which operating system do you want to run on your PC?
Windows is the most widely used PC operating system, installed on nearly 90 percent of all computers, worldwide. Windows 10 is the latest version, and it’s running on over 400 million devices. Windows 10 offers an intuitive, touch-friendly interface and strong security features. It also runs across a wide range of desktop PCs and has the largest software library of any PC platform.
Formerly known as OS X, macOS is Apple’s reliable and secure, UNIX-based PC operating system and you’ll find it on every Mac computer. It can’t match Windows for software availability, however, standards like Microsoft Office are available in native versions and there is strong representation from publishers of creative software. Although macOS is known for its ease of use, it doesn’t offer a touch interface.
Google’s Chrome OS is designed from the ground up to be optimized for use on inexpensive hardware. It’s highly secure—with automatic security updates—easy to use, and primarily runs free, web-based Google applications. All of these qualities make Chrome especially attractive for educational use.
Types of Desktop Computers
Many homes need a desktop computer that can cover all the basic tasks a family might need. Being able to do homework in the evening, updating social media accounts, maintaining the family budget, web surfing and storing all those digital photos. A basic everyday desktop PC with a dual-core CPU and 4GB of RAM is an affordable solution to covering your everyday computing needs.
While an everyday desktop PC ticks most of the boxes for many people, there are cases where more power is needed. If you want a computer that can easily handle demanding tasks like editing video, crunching large spreadsheets, or seamlessly streaming 4K movies, you’ll want a performance desktop PC.
If gaming or virtual reality are in the cards, you’ll want a gaming PC. Equipped with a quad-core CPU, graphics card, fast storage, loads of RAM, plenty of fast storage and the latest high speed connectivity, gaming PCs provide the ultimate in desktop computing performance.
Sometimes you might want the power of desktop PC in a more compact package, and one that doesn’t require connecting an external monitor. All-in-One PCs are the perfect solution. Everything you expect from a desktop PC—including the display—in a single package. Opt for a wireless keyboard and mouse and the only cable you have to deal with is for power. Some Windows All-in-Ones even offer a touchscreen display and the option of using it as a super-sized tablet. The one thing you give up with an All-in-One compared to other desktop PCs is easy upgradability, so choose specifications that will serve not just now, but for the life of the computer.
Mini PCs are an increasingly popular choice. These tiny desktop PCs are small enough to hide in an entertainment centre as a media server; some can even be mounted to the back of a TV. Hook one up to your TV for basic computing such as web surfing and checking e-mail, right from your living room.
One of the big advantages of a desktop PC is connectivity. Desktop PCs are equipped with a huge range of connectivity options, both wired and wireless. Here are some of the key methods to watch for.
Wi-Fi is key to wireless internet connectivity and wirelessly connecting to devices and peripherals on your Wi-Fi network (such as printers and hard drives). 802.11ac is the latest Wi-Fi standard and ensures you get the speed you need—just make sure your home router is 802.11ac, or you’ll need to upgrade it to see results.
Bluetooth is the wireless standard most commonly used for connecting to peripherals like wireless keyboards, mice, speakers and headphones. Bluetooth 4.0 is the most common version, offering improved range over previous versions, but Bluetooth 5.0 is beginning to roll out. This new standard brings big improvements: double the speed, four times the range and improved security.
USB is the most commonly used connectivity for wired accessories. External hard drives, keyboards and mice, printers, thumb drives, printers and others use USB. USB 3.0 with Type-A connectors are the most common, but the latest desktop PCs are beginning to offer new USB Type-C as well. Desktop PCs typically offer four or more USB ports.
Ethernet is used for a wired connection to a network. It’s less important now that Wi-Fi is in virtually all homes, but manufacturers usually include a Gigabit Ethernet port on desktop PCs in case a faster or more secure wired connection is needed.
HDMI, DVI, VGA and DisplayPort are the primary wired methods for connecting a desktop PC to a computer monitor—although USB-C is starting to make inroads as well. VGA is an older, analogue connection that’s still useful if you need to connect an older monitor. The other standards are digital and able to support higher resolution video. If you want to connect a desktop PC to a TV, the easiest method is HDMI.
Other Features to Consider
Outside of the PC itself, the single biggest factor in how much you enjoy using your PC is the monitor you connect it to. The technology involved in displays has exploded in the past several years. You can choose monitors that offer 4K resolution, panels over 40-inches in size, widescreen displays, curved displays, monitors with ultra-fast response times for gaming and monitors that provide superb colour reproduction for professional use. With the right video card, you can also connect multiple monitors to your desktop PC.
Keyboard and Mouse
The most common method of interacting with your computer is the keyboard and mouse. Most desktop PCs will ship with basic wired, USB versions. Go cord-free with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to get rid of desktop clutter. Doing a lot of typing? You may prefer the feedback of a mechanical keyboard. And of course gamers have a wide selection of keyboards and mice that are optimized for PC gaming, helping to give them a competitive edge. Read more about PC keyboards here.
Most people end of printing from their home computer. You may not think you need one, but printers become invaluable for printing homework assignments, photos, hard copies of bills, invitations, even directions for the next road trip. Choose a multi-function printer and you can print virtually anything, plus you get scanning capability, a copier and even fax capability.
Do you need an optical drive? Laptops have been moving away from including optical drives as more software is available for download. But with a desktop PC, space is not a concern. Many come equipped with an optical drive, so you can load off-the-shelf software and burn backups. Opt for a Blue-ray drive and you can play HD movies on your computer as well.
Webcam and Microphone
Want to take to Skype to chat with your friends and family? You’ll want to add a webcam and a microphone to your desktop PC.
Many desktop PCs have a small speaker inside their case. This is fine for beeping system alerts, but if you want to use that computer to play games, enjoying listening to music, take in the latest movies or even just watch YouTube clips, you’re going to want to improve the sound. There are many external PC speaker systems to choose from, including basic two speaker setups and 5.1-channel systems. Another option is to connect to a portable Bluetooth speaker that you can pick up and take with you when needed.
Should You Build Your Own Desktop PC?
If you want the challenge of building your own desktop PC—completely customized from the case up—Best Buy carries a full range of PC components. Everything from the case to the CPU to the graphics card. For most people, the extensive selection of desktop PCs at Best Buy will support any configuration they might need, but if you choose the hands-on approach, you’re also covered.
Take the Next Step
Now that you’re informed about the details of how desktop PCs work, and the impact key components have on performance, it’s time to start comparing. Check out Best Buy’s huge selection of desktop PCs and accessories, and you’ll find the perfect desktop PC for any situation.