Purchasing a desktop computer in 2021 may sound dated. After all, why limit yourself to working or gaming at a desk when there are great laptops you can take anywhere?
But there are, in fact, a few reasons why a desktop may be a better option than a laptop.
Laptop or desktop: Which is better?
To start, desktops are far more versatile than laptops, because their parts can be easily upgraded.
For example, desktops have spare slots for installing more hard drives for additional storage, while with laptops you can only swap the hard drive it comes with for another (or use an external hard drive, which gives you one more thing to keep track of). It is easy to increase a desktop’s memory, or RAM, for running programs faster, if needed, and add or boost graphics cards, something you can’t always do with laptops.
Additionally, you can upgrade screen size or display quality, or switch to a new keyboard, at any time.
The best part is that you can do most of these things yourself, even if you’re not tech-savvy. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that show you how to handle many simple upgrades or changes.
Another factor is performance. Desktop computers have full-size parts, including slightly bigger processors, hence they are usually more powerful and faster than laptops with the same specs.
Desktops also make for better ergonomics. Most experts agree that maintaining good posture while you work — that is, keeping the monitor at eye level, the keyboard at elbow level, and back fairly straight— can help prevent aches and pain caused by prolonged hours at a desk.
Desktop computer buying guide
Desktops have a reputation for being bulky and heavy. But new compact or slim desktops are about half the size of traditional full-size towers and easily fit in small spaces. There are also small, square mini PCs that take just a few inches of space, and the tower-less all-in-one desktops (AIO) whose parts — motherboard, processor, memory, storage, etc. — are all contained within the monitor, such as Apple’s popular iMac.
Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to find the right desktop computer for you:
• CPU for speed, power and efficiency. The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the computer’s brain, and it’s responsible for processing and executing instructions and information.
As with laptops, most desktop brands use variations of Intel and AMD processors. These are distinguished by generations and series name.
Intel and AMD use similar strategies for naming their processors. Usually, it includes the core series name, followed by the generation and model or SKU number.
For example, a 10th generation Intel processor would be listed as Intel Core i9-10900 whereas a 9th generation would be Core i9-9900. Generally speaking, the newer generations have more powerful and altogether superior capabilities.
• Cores and clock speed. Cores and clock speed are also important, especially for gamers and users who run graphic-intensive programs.
The processor core is the individual processing unit within the CPU, and each one focuses on one task at the time. Most computers now have multiple processor cores, usually starting at four-core (quad-core), which enables them to run various programs and tasks simultaneously.
On the other hand, clock speed, which is measured in Gigahertz (GHz), refers to how quickly each core retrieves and processes tasks. A processor with higher GHz will, consequently, be faster.
Some high-end models have 10-core processors, with clock speeds up to 5.2Ghz. However, if you’re just going to perform general tasks, like streaming and word processing, a dual or quad-core with 2.9GHz to 4.3GHz should be sufficient.
• GPU for gaming. You’ll want a powerful Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU, if you’re looking for a desktop that excels at gaming, video production, or anything related to graphics.
There are two types of GPU cards — integrated and discrete. Integrated graphics cards are embedded within the CPU, and are usually less powerful than discrete. Discrete, or dedicated graphics cards, are mounted on their own circuit board and have their own memory and cooling fan.
Most PCs include integrated graphics cards that are powerful enough for casual gaming and watching 4K videos, but they’ll struggle with software that require heavy processing power or games on their highest resolution settings. Serious gamers or graphic design professionals should most likely get an integrated graphics card to ensure better performance.
In general, you’ll need a dedicated graphics card of at least 6GB for gaming at 1080p resolution and 8GB for higher resolutions, like 4K.
• Storage Drives: SSD vs. HDD. There are two types of storage drives, solid-state drive (SSD) and hard disk drive (HDD). They both refer to storage capacity and do pretty much the same job, with some slight differences.
One is speed. SSDs are faster and require less time to boot and speed up than hard drives. This also means that they launch programs and transfer files faster.
Another difference is design. SSDs are smaller because they don’t have a spinning platter. Consequently, they don’t make noise like hard drives.
Yet, when compared with hard drives, SSDs have less storage capacity. While hard drives can have up to 8TB, SSDs max out at 2TB.
Desktops with SSDs also cost more because the components are more expensive and more complex to assemble. This means that you’ll get fewer gigabytes for the money.
So which one should you get?
If you’re on a budget or want more storage capacity, go for a traditional hard drive. But if you’re more interested in speed or are a graphic designer, consider a desktop with SSD.
Having said that, there are many desktops that feature a dual-drive system, which combines an SSD as a primary drive and a hard drive as secondary. This dual system can add between $100 and $400 to the base price.
• RAM. The memory, or RAM, is where a computer stores all the information it needs immediately to running programs. The more RAM the computer has, the faster it will be.
Most desktop computers have at least 8GB of RAM, and can be configured to have up to 128GB. Broadly speaking, 8GB is enough for average users. But if you’ll be running multiple large programs at the same time, go for 16GB or higher.
• Ports. Unlike laptops, which are sometimes limited to one or two USB ports and an audio jack, desktops offer more ports. This gives you more options for connecting a variety of add-ons and devices at the same time, such as printers, external hard drives, and so on. These are usually placed at the front of the desktop and at the rear, though those at the front are more convenient and easy to reach without having to move the tower.
Best desktop computers
1. Editor’s pick: Dell XPS Minitower Desktop Computer
CPU: Intel Core 10th Gen i3 10100 – i9 10900 | RAM: up to 128GB | Storage: up to 1TB SSD, 2TB HDD | Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 360 – Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070
The Dell XPS offers multiple configurations, but starting at around $500 you can get a PC with a 10th Gen Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a hard drive of 1TB. In other words, this desktop comes with an entry-level processor, enough memory for daily tasks, and plenty of storage for a really low price.
If you want more power, upgrade to an Intel Core i9 processor, 128GB of RAM, and up to 2TB of SSD and hard drive. You can max it out even more by choosing either a Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Super or an AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT graphics card. Plus you can choose between a black or white chassis. With these configurations, the Dell XPS is capable of matching most users' needs, though doing so may increase the price by a factor of five or six.
The XPS 8940 includes a wide array of ports. In the front you’ll find an SD card reader, three USB type-A, one type-C, an headset jack, and an optional optical drive. On the back, you get six additional USBs, a DisplayPort for monitors, an HDMI, and audio ports.
This Dell model is also ready for future upgrades. It comes with additional storage bays for a 3.3” HDD, two for a 2.5” NB HDD, and three PCIe slots for adding peripheral components like sound cards, graphic cards, and other expansion cards.
2. Best overall: Apple iMac (2020)
CPU: Intel Core 10th Gen i5 - i9 | RAM: up to 128GB | Storage: up to 8TB SSD | Graphics: Radeon Pro 5300 - 5700
Even though the new 27-inch iMac model (late 2020 version) looks the same as prior models, it was upgraded with a 10th generation Intel Core processor, the AMD Radeon Pro 5000 series, and a new 1080p webcam, reaffirming its position as one of the best professional all-in-one workstations in the market.
Aside from the faster processor and graphic, the newest iMac features 5K Retina Display with True Tone technology, which provides a more natural viewing experience and accurate colors.
And for the first time, there’s the option to configure it with nano-texture glass, which reduces glare without affecting color brilliance. This option is ideal for rooms that receive direct sunlight or have changing lighting. It does, however, add a hefty $500 to the total price.
The iMac can be configured to double the memory of its predecessor (up to 128GB), and with more storage (up to 8TB of SSD).
Apple also upgraded the SDXC card reader to support Ultra High Speed SD cards, or UHS-II. These are used in professional cameras, and give photographers and videographers faster speeds to transfer their work.
Additionally, there’s the option to upgrade the standard 1Gbps Ethernet jack to 10Gbps for an extra $100. The latter is ideal for users that have high-speed local networks and want high performance for transferring large files from and to the network.
Overall, this model is a great investment for users in need of a high-end hardware packed with tools for creating and editing graphics.
The 27-inch iMac’s major drawback is that, like previous models, its stand doesn’t have height adjustment. It does tilt, though.
One other thing to consider: the new 2021 iMac model will soon be released. That one will reportedly feature a thinner screen border — bezel— and an Apple-designed chip (they already started transitioning away from the Intel chip in late 2020).
So, if you’re interested in getting an iMac with the Apple-designed System on a chip (SoC), you may want to wait a few months.
3. Best for low prices: Acer Aspire TC Desktop
CPU: Intel Core 10th Gen i3 10100 - i5 10400 | RAM: 12GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 630
The Acer Aspire TC-895-UA92 is simply one of the best budget-friendly desktops you’ll find out there.
Consistently retailing under $600, this PC tower offers enough power and features to perform all the basic computing functions you need, such as word processing, streaming, and web browsing. It comes with a 10th Gen Intel Core i3 or i5 processor, up to 32GB of RAM, and 512GB of SSD storage. It also has an entry-level graphics card — Intel UHD Graphics 360 — that can be used for videos and casual light-gaming in settings of 720p or less.
The Aspire TC is Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi-enabled, and offers multiple connectivity options. There are two USB ports in the front — one USB type C and one USB 3.2 type A — an SD card reader, an optical disc drive, and headphone and microphone jacks.
There are also four additional USB 3.2 Gen 1, two USB 2.0 (type B) ideal for printers, scanners, or external hard drive connectivity, two HDMIs, the traditional microphone, stereo and woofer ports, and an Ethernet LAN port.
Before deciding this is the desktop for you, consider two potential drawbacks. First, the Aspire TC doesn’t have a VGA/DVI port, so the monitor you choose must be HDMI-compatible. Second, its integrated GPU will perform poorly with graphic-intensive software like video editing or content creation like Adobe After Effects. The same goes for games that require high-resolution settings.
4. Best for offices: HP Pavilion All-in-One 24-Inch Touchscreen Desktop
CPU: Intel Core 10th Gen i5 10400T or AMD Ryzen 5 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 256GB SSD | Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 630 or AMD Radeon Graphics
The HP Pavilion is a mid-range PC that fuses performance with a stylish design. Like Apple’s iMac, the Pavilion is an all-in-one (AIO) desktop, meaning that its hardware is included inside the monitor, eliminating the need for the traditional desktop computer tower.
The HP is a great option if you run a small business office, work from home, or are just looking for a more affordable PC alternative to Apple’s iMac.
Models with AMD Ryzen 5 processor start around $800. The HP Pavilion features a Full HD 24-inch touchscreen, 16GB RAM, and 256GB SSD storage, giving it the speed to run multiple programs and tabs at the same time without slowdowns. Depending on whether it comes with an AMD Ryzen or Intel Core 10th Gen processor, it features an AMD Radeon Graphics or an Intel UHD Graphics 360, respectively.
Other notable features are the Pavilion’s retractable pop-up webcam that allows you to push it down whenever you’re not using it (perfect for those currently covering your webcam with a sticker), and its built-in dual speakers by Bang & Olufsen, a Danish high-end audio manufacturer. As with most all-in-ones (AIO), connectivity ports are in the rear, these include three USB type A, two USB type C, a three-in-one media card reader, an Ethernet port, two HDMI, and an audio jack.
Like most AIOs, the Pavilion doesn’t have a built-in CD/DVD optical drive, although you can buy an external drive for about $30, if needed.
5. Best for gamers: OMEN 30L Gaming Desktop PC
CPU: Intel Core 10th Gen i5 10400F – i9 10900K | RAM: Up to 16GB | Storage: 512GB SSD | Graphics: NVIDIA GTX 1660 – NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060
If you’re into gaming but don’t necessarily have the time or interest to build a custom computer, a pre-built gaming machine like the HP Omen could be a great option.
This HP model offers high performance, easy upgradability, and enough memory to multitask while gaming. Most models are equipped with 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, a 10th generation Intel Core i7, and a GeForce RTX 2060 graphics card for 4K gaming.
As another plus, you don’t need tools to upgrade the Omen since its side panel detaches by simply pressing a button in the back. Inside, there is one slot for additional RAM (for 32GB total), and a SATA header for an additional internal hard drive.
This model does have one drawback: there are some complaints that the chassis lacks ventilation and can overheat, which can prompt its pretty loud internal fan to cool it down.