Thursday, July 8, 2010

How to Buy a Desktop PC

A stock heatsink on an Intel q6600 quad core p...

When buying a Desktop PC, you still need to make some choices when it comes to CPUs, memory, hard drive capacity and graphics technology. The good news is your money has never gone further.

Does your PC take so long to start up you have time to go get a cup of coffee-and drink it? Tried installing the latest game only to find out your graphics card is six generations too old to play it? Or maybe you just want to take advantage of the speed and reliability of operating systems like Microsoft Windows 7 and Snow Leopard. If any of these are true, then it is time for you to buy a new desktop PC. And we can help you do it.
Prices for desktop PCs start as low as $250 and range all the way up to $5,000, but most of us would be more than happy with an $800 box. You still need to make some choices when it comes to CPUs, memory, hard drive capacity and graphics technology, but the good news is your money has never gone further. And a PC you buy today could very well last you for four to six years.

The Nettop Option

If all you want to do is surf the Web, run Office apps, and do very light computing duties, you should consider a nettop. Nettops belong to a desktop category that comes in below the $400-500 value desktop categories, both in price and capabilities. Nettops run on the same basic components that netbooks do: low-powered single- or dual-core processor like the Intel Atom, AMD Neo, or some of the low-powered AMD Athlon X2 processors; non-upgradable integrated graphics; 512MB to 2GB of RAM; smaller hard drive; no optical drive; and Windows XP, Windows 7 Starter/Home Basic, or Linux operating system.
Some all-in-one nettops have a built-in screen and still can be bought for less than $500. You'll also see quite a few nettops aimed at the home theater crowd. They work well in a living room because they're silent (no fans); have wireless keyboards and/or mice; and often have HDMI ports for connecting to HDTVs. They're one of the easiest way to get IPTV services like Hulu and YouTube on your HDTV in the living room, plus you can comfortably surf the Web from your couch on a nettop with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Mid-priced Desktop PCs

Sub $600 PCs used to be the bargain basement for desktops, but now they're the norm. You should be able to find a system that has a dual-core processor and at least 2GB of RAM for under $600 with an LCD monitor. The dual-core processor will help with the increasingly complex tasks that even casual users expect of their PCs. These include converting video from one format to another (so you can view it on your cell phone, for example), or light photo editing like removing red eye, cropping, or even recomposing the layout of a picture by adding missing people or changing colors in a shot.
A Pentium dual core or AMD Athlon X2 processor should fit the bill, but you can upgrade to a faster Core 2 Duo, Core i3/i5, or Athlon II X2 if you want to get tasks done quicker. Windows 7 Home Premium and DVD burners prevail in this price range and are wise investments. Many come with hard drives of substantial capacity (250GB to 320GB). Many of these PCs still come in minitower cases, but the sexier ones come in small form factor cases, ultra small form factors, or better yet, mini PC form factors. These cases take up much less room on your desk than a traditional minitower, and are just as functional as their larger counterparts. Plus, a good value PC should easily last you the next four to six years.
Multimedia and Gaming Desktops
This is where the multimedia mavens and power users shop. Look for a PC with a quad-core processor or high-speed (more than 2.6 GHz) dual core processor, so you can edit your photos and videos quickly and easily. Don't settle for less than 4GB to 8GB of memory and a 500GB or larger hard drive. Quad core processors make like the Intel Core 2 Quad, Core i5/i7, and AMD's Phenom X4 and Phenom II X4 are the CPUs to look for in this category. If your multimedia projects are for paying clients instead of just personal photos and videos, then look for a faster processor and more memory so you can meet your deadlines quickly.
Systems in the multimedia and gaming categories are generally more expandable than SFF PCs or nettops: you can add one or more hard drives for additional storage, one or more graphics card for faster 3D applications, and one or two optical drives so you can burn DVDs or Blu-ray discs for your friends and relatives. Last but not least, PCI and PCIe card slots let you add wireless networking (WiFi), TV tuners, and other cards for additional interfaces like FireWire 800 or eSATA.
Gamers have their own buyer's guide here on, but suffice to say that fans of 3D games require a little more power from their systems than the average user. Look for higher-powered discrete graphics from makers like Nvidia and ATI if you're in the market for a system to primarily play games on.
All in One PCs
An all in one PC will almost always have a screen that's bigger than the ones on those bulky laptops. All in one PCs work equally well on tiny desks in cubicles or small studio apartments. You'll find screens sizes from 15 inches up to 27-inch behemoths and beyond. The Apple iMac is the trend leader, but systems like the Lenovo B500, MSI Wind Top, Gateway One, and HP TouchSmart PCs merit closer looks too. Touch screens are much more usable because of Windows 7's built in touch capability, and the touch interface makes sense for a desktop with a built-in screen. An all in one desktop (or any desktop for that matter) works well as a "base station" for an iPod/iPhone/iPad/Zune or even a cheaper netbook. Picture this: use the netbook or iPad for surfing around the house and checking your Facebook, then use the desktop in your room to do the photo editing and video editing you need to do for your business presentation or for the online family photo album.

Beware Bloatware

There is a downside to cheaper PCs: the specter of bloatware . Like broadcast TV and "free" cell phones, one of the reasons why the PCs are so cheap is because some other entity is subsidizing the low prices. The PC manufacturers ship their PCs with those Microsoft, Intel, or AMD stickers on the case, and there's almost always a copy of Microsoft Office 2007 60-day trial on the hard drive. Companies like eBay and Wild Tangent also get prominent placement with shortcuts on the desktop and extra programs in the Start menu. See my rant against bloatware/crapware here for more details.
Word to the wise: When you're trying to save money, it's tempting to buy the cheapest PC you can find-but don't do it. If it doesn't have these recommended parts, you'll wind up with something that is super slow or, worse yet, unusable within a year. That "incredible buy" may cost you more money in the long run.

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