Snazzy, innovative laptop designs are constantly evolving. Smartphones are ubiquitous and astonishingly capable. So where does that leave that ’80s relic, the desktop PC? There are still plenty for sale, and innovation never stops in the desktop market, especially among small-form-factor and all-in-one models. But many shoppers seem to consider desktops an anachronism, heading straight to the laptop aisle for their next computer purchase.
That’s not always the right move. Desktops aren’t facing extinction, and they’re doing anything but standing still. For consumers and businesses alike, they’re still the most cost-effective and customizable computers around, as shown by our favorite examples from recent reviews. Check them out, then read on to learn everything you need to know about finding the best desktop for you.
1. Dell Inspiron Desktop (3891)
|+ Bargain Price||– Only one HDMI port|
|+ Perky Intel Core i3 CPU||– Integrated graphics limit gaming potential|
|+ Runs quietly||– Base model supports only one internal storage drive|
|+ Built-in DVD burner and WiFi 6||– Non-standard power supply|
|+ Includes 12 month McAfee sub|
Dell Inspiron Desktop (3891)
Dell’s compact Inspiron Desktop 3891 offers a peppy Core i3 processor, Wi-Fi 6, and a DVD burner for a rock-bottom price.
Why We Picked It
Many economy models make do with Intel Pentium or Celeron or AMD Athlon processors that frankly don’t cut the mustard nowadays. Dell’s Inspiron Desktop 3891 is a happy exception, offering a perky Intel Core i3 CPU, Wi-Fi 6, and even a DVD burner in a Windows 11 PC priced under $400 as tested. Its mini-tower case has some (though not a ton of) room for expansion and, except for gaming—its integrated graphics simply aren’t up for it—the Dell can handle any mainstream task.
Who It’s For
It gives you just the basics, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Both families and small-office entrepreneurs will find the Inspiron 3891 a handy productivity and online communications station at a price low enough to buy a pair.
2. Lenovo Legion Tower 5i (2021)
|+ Six-core CPU and 6GB GPU||– Inadequate 8GB of RAM|
|+ Stylish case with customizable lighting||– Could use a front USBC port|
|+ Quiet under load|
Lenovo Legion Tower 5i (2021)
Lenovo’s entry-level Legion Tower 5i gaming desktop delivers improved performance and style at a low price.
Why We Picked It
Gaming desktops can be bulky, blingy machines whose side-panel windows reveal elaborately RGB-lit components and whose prices can reach the stratosphere. Lenovo’s Legion Tower 5i flunks on that last count—it’s under $1,000—but hangs with the big boys surprisingly well in other respects. Its see-through side shows off three lighting zones (the Lenovo logo on the front is a fourth) and it delivers enjoyable 1080p gaming with a pair of sixes instead of fours: a six- rather than quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and a 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Super graphics card instead of a 4GB GPU.
Who It’s For
We can quibble that the Legion Tower 5i lacks a front-mounted USB-C port and you’ll likely want to upgrade its 8GB of standard RAM to 12GB or 16GB, but otherwise it’s a great gaming bargain. Mid-level players with low-level budgets will find it an ideal option.
3. Falcon Nortwest Tiki (2022)
|+ First-class build quality||– Only high-end config available|
|+ Ultra-compact and quiet|
|+ Stellar gaming performance|
|+ Fully upgradable|
|+ Excellent standard warranty|
The Bottom Line:
Falcon Northwest’s Tiki packs full-tower power into a small-form-factor chassis without compromise. Just beware—it’s not cheap.
Why We Picked It
Too often, especially in the gaming segment, a desktop PC is really an under-the-desk or next-to-the-desk PC; full-size tower cases are just plain big. The Falcon Northwest Tiki’s footprint is tiny—it takes just 4 by 14 inches of desk space and stands 13 inches tall—but it uses full-bore, industry-standard desktop components and is more upgradable than its closest rival in size, the Corsair One a200. Loaded with a screaming AMD Ryzen 7 5800X3D processor and over-the-top Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 graphics card, our unbelievably fast test unit is unbelievably expensive at $4,591, but it gives you unbeatable gaming bragging rights in an ultra-compact, quiet package with simply astounding build quality.
Who It’s For
The custom-tailored, more-than-immaculate Falcon Northwest is simply as good as a desktop gets, whether for ultimate gaming or workstation-class creativity and digital design. There are millions of PCs more affordable than the Tiki, but few better.
4. Alienware Aurora R13
|+ Resdesigned chassis with side window||– Pricey as configured|
|+ Blazing-fast CPU performance||– Loud fans under load|
|+ RTX 3090 GPU||– Plastic case|
|+ Midrange starting price with plenty of config options|
Alienware Aurora R13
The redesigned Alienware Aurora R13 brings the heat with Intel’s impressive 12th Generation “Alder Lake” CPUs and up to Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 graphics, all in a new-look chassis with a side window.
Why We Picked It
Falcon Northwest has few peers in the ultra-high-end gaming space, but Alienware is one, and the Aurora R13 shows Dell’s exotic subsidiary at its finest. The curvaceous tower is not very compact, measuring 20 by 8 by 23 inches, but is so beautiful it belongs on instead of under your desk, with a honeycomb front panel and windowed side to show off gorgeous lighting and flawless assembly. Base models are actually pretty affordable, though you can reach for the sky with a 12th Generation Intel Core i9 and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090. (Our test unit approached $4,700.)
Who It’s For
The Aurora R13 is Alienware’s gaming flagship and mostly targets the cost-no-object crowd, though a midrange configuration will let you enjoy its style for less. Its plastic case is arguably less elegant than some metal sculpture, and its cooling fans get noisy under pressure, but otherwise it’s a smashing success.
5. Velocity Micro Raptor Z55 (2021)
|+ Blistering performance||– Pricey|
|+ Intel Core i9, RTX 3080 options||– Conservative, professional design may turn gamers off|
|+ Pristine custom build|
|+ Professional aesthetic|
|+ Good support|
The Bottom Line:
Velocity Micro delivers on its reputation for performance-first builds in the new “Alder Lake”-based Raptor Z55 boutique desktop PC, which beats all comers in our Core i9/GeForce RTX 3080 Ti configuration.
Why We Picked It
Velocity Micro is Virginia’s premiere boutique vendor, and the Raptor Z55 is its masterpiece. Hardcore gamers may find its conservative tower case a bit boring, but though it can push frame rates sky-high with the best of them it’s even better as an ultra-high-end productivity or digital content creation machine. If you spend your days crunching colossal datasets or doing extreme 3D rendering but let your hair down with the most demanding gaming titles after hours, look no further.
Who It’s For
Offering a beautiful custom build and impressive U.S.-based support, the Velocity Micro is a showpiece for Intel’s 12th Gen “Alder Lake” CPUs and Nvidia’s fastest graphics cards. It’s tailor-made for deep-pocketed pros whose taste in work and play tends toward subtle rather than garish.
6. Dell Precision 7920 Tower (2020)
|+ Sky-high performance potential||– Options quickly raise the price|
|+ Countless config options||– Usefulness of dual processors depends on software|
|+ ISV certified|
|+ Highly servicableand expandable|
|+ Standard three-year onsite warranty|
Dell Precision 7920 Tower (2020)
Dell’s Precision 7920 Tower workstation is a dual-CPU monster for tasks that can leverage its server-grade hardware and require maximum reliability. Just be prepared for sticker shock if you go all-in like on our test model.
Why We Picked It
Offhand, we’re not sure we’ve ever tested a more expensive PC than the Dell Precision 7920 Tower—our test system rang up at $23,289, giving nosebleeds even to the PC Labs veterans who shrug at $5,000 gaming desktops. But those rigs are wimps next to the Precision, which boasts two 24-core Intel Xeon Platinum processors, 96GB of error-correcting-code memory, 16.5TB of storage spread across five drives, and a 48GB Nvidia Quadro RTX 8000 graphics card. Mere 2D design apps like AutoCAD are appetizers for this Dell; it’s built for near-supercomputer levels of data science, 3D rendering, and simulation modeling.
Who It’s For
Obviously, ordinary workstations like Dell’s more mainstream Precision or HP’s Z or Lenovo’s ThinkStation desktops can handle almost all creative, architectural, and data analysis jobs. Many software applications (including our performance benchmarks) actually can’t take full advantage of the 7920’s power. But when only the ultimate will do, scientists and engineers will be grateful for this monster’s muscle.
7. MSI Modern AM241P 11M
|+ Compact design||– Underwhelming audio output|
|+ 1080p webcam included||– Webcam is not built-in|
|+ Both HDMI in and out ports||– 256GB SSD may not be enough|
|+ Wireless keyboard and mouse||– No Thunderbolt 4 support|
|+ Bay for a 2.5″ drive upgrade|
MSI Modern AM241P 11M
Better acoustics, plus the addition of USB-C ports and a high-res webcam, are steps in the right direction, making MSI’s Modern AM241P 11M a solid, if unremarkable, budget AIO for small businesses and home offices.
Why We Picked It
Apple’s iMac is probably the model of a 24-inch all-in-one desktop, but it starts at $1,299. MSI’s Modern AM241P 11M starts at $849.99 with a peppy Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, a reasonably good-looking full HD display, a nice array of ports, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. Its screen bezels are too thin for a built-in webcam, but MSI bundles a sharp 1080p USB webcam you can park on the top bezel and remove when not in use.
Who It’s For
Don’t expect to play games with the MSI’s integrated graphics or enjoy audiophile music quality from its subpar speakers, but expect it to serve you well as a family-room homework, browsing, and email station. Sure, a sharper screen and more RAM and storage would be nice, but for the price it’s a home run.
8. HP Envy 34 All-in-One (2022)
|+ Sharp, snazzy 34″ 5K display||– Less-powerful, mobile-class RTX 3060 GPU|
|+ Strong all-around performance|
|+ High quality 16MP camera|
|+ Thunderbolt 4|
|+ SD card reader|
|+ Easy access to RAM and M.2 SSD slots|
HP Envy 34 All-in-One (2022)
For creative pros yearning for a big screen with plenty of power and functionality to support it, the HP Envy 34 All-in-One desktop PC expertly obliges, with snappy performance and a productivity-focused feature set.
Why We Picked It
Did we just say a sharper screen would be nice? HP’s Envy 34 all-in-one offers a massive (34-inch diagonal) 5K display with panoramic 5,120-by-2,160-pixel resolution, as well as a 16-megapixel webcam that magnetically snaps almost anywhere along the top or either side of the screen to make you look your best. It’s also a lively performer, even for mid-level gaming thanks to a discrete Nvidia GeForce GPU instead of the usual integrated graphics, and has all the ports, memory, and storage you’ll likely need as well as a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Who It’s For
With Apple taking its 27-inch Retina Display iMac off the market, there’s a dearth of premium all-in-one PCs, and the Envy 34 fills the niche nicely. Though not cheap, it’s not prohibitively expensive, and its 21:9 aspect ratio widescreen is as good as a dual-monitor setup for arranging multiple app windows for max productivity. One of PCMag’s staffers bought one and edited this writeup on it.
9. HP Chromebase All-in-One 22
|+ Attractive design||– Display isn’t the sharpest|
|+ Rotating display useful for some websites||– Occasional screen-rotation hitches|
|+ High-res webcam||– No side-mounted ports|
|+ Booming audio|
|+ Includes wireless keyboard and mouse|
|+ Affordable as configured|
HP Chromebase All-in-One 22
The HP Chromebase All-in-One 22 is a well-designed, good-looking Chrome OS computer with a host of attractions for home use, including a rotating display.
Why We Picked It
At the other end of HP’s all-in-one desktop offerings, the under-$500 Chromebase 22 brings the appeal of an easy-to-use, online-friendly Chromebook to your desk or den or kitchen counter. Its 21.5-inch 1080p screen pivots between landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) modes, letting you switch from enjoying a YouTube or Netflix video to seeing most of a webpage or Google Workspace word processing document without scrolling. Its small-footprint, cone-shaped base doubles as a surprisingly high-quality speaker, and it offers a high-res webcam and wireless keyboard and mouse.
Who It’s For
Chrome OS’ mostly browser-based design means it’s a poor choice for demanding apps like photo or video editing (as is the HP’s Pentium Gold CPU), but a fine fit for everyday productivity, schoolwork, email, and web surfing. Few Android games can take advantage of its rotating display, but it’s a nifty online kiosk for a family room or even a home office.
10. HP Z2 Mini G9
|+ Compact VESA-compatible design||– Can get louder than expected|
|+ Impressive performance||– External power brick|
|+ Easily servicable, even the graphics card|
|+ Ample connectivity|
|+ Modular I/O ports|
HP Z2 Mini G9
HP’s redesigned G9 version of its Z2 Mini workstation punches well above its weight, with desktop-class CPUs, replaceable graphics, and excellent connectivity.
Why We Picked It
Technically one of HP’s Z series desktop workstations, the Z2 Mini G9 outdoes even Apple’s Mac mini at cramming serious computing power into a diminutive desk accessory. Taking just 8.3 by 8.6 inches of desk space (or zero if you use the optional VESA mount to stash it behind a monitor or attach it to the underside of your desk), the HP combines Intel’s 12th Generation “Alder Lake” silicon (up to a blazing Core i9) with an industry-standard swappable graphics card and up to 64GB of memory and 8TB of storage.
Who It’s For
You’ll pay about $3,000 for a Z2 Mini G9 as well-equipped as our review unit, but if you need genuine workstation muscle in a tiny space, it’s a heaven-sent solution. Architects, graphic designers, and engineers can get even faster performance and more expandability in bigger boxes, but if you crave not the most bang for the buck but bang for the square inch, it’s your dream machine.
11. Intel NUC 11 Pro Kit NUC11TNKi5
|+ Super-trim profile||– Not an option for gamers|
|+ Very good CPU muscle||– Must fact SSD, RAM, and OS costs|
|+ Clean, classic NUC design|
|+ Above-average connectivity for the chassis size|
|+ Supports up to four direct-connected displays|
Intel NUC 11 Pro Kit NUC11TNKi5
Intel’s NUC 11 Pro Kit combines the company’s latest silicon with surprising expandability, multi-display chops, and productivity oomph in a state-of-the-art, right-priced mini desktop.
Why We Picked It
Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) mini desktops are impressive enough to claim two spots on this list. The NUC 11 Pro Kit (NUC11TNKi5) is overqualified for the electronic-signage and display-kiosk applications that traditionally star small-form-factor (SFF) systems—it’s a full-featured, seriously powerful desktop that will reward anyone looking for an office productivity or creative PC (though not a gaming rig). It’s also available in both preconfigured models and bare-bones kits (Intel installs the CPU, you provide the RAM, solid-state drive, and Windows license).
Who It’s For
Both enterprise and professional customers can profit from the NUC 11 Pro’s mix of compactness and capability, especially if they take advantage of its support for multiple monitors. It’s fine both for traditional SFF tasks like digital signage and for its desk-space-saving general-purpose potential.
12. Corsair One a200
|+ Stellar gaming performance||– Complicated to upgrade|
|+ Whisper-quiet operation|
|+ Includes PCI Express 4.0 SSD|
Corsair One a200
Corsair’s liquid-cooled One a200 offers exceptional gaming performance in a compact, ultra-quiet tower that takes up almost no desk space.
Why We Picked It
Speaking of taking almost no space, the Corsair One a200 is the derringer of gaming desktops. Our most recent test unit ($3,799) paired a 12-core AMD Ryzen 9 5900X processor with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 graphics card for blazing-fast, silky-smooth 4K gameplay. It even made room for 32GB of memory and a 1TB SSD plus 2TB hard drive. The 15-by-6.9-by-7.9-inch PC sports a handsome metal case with two RGB lighting zones on the front panel and plenty of ports.
Who It’s For
With white-glove build quality and blissfully quiet liquid-cooled operation, the Corsair One a200 is obviously an exceptional gaming rig but also ready to serve as a powerful productivity or creative workstation. Small is beautiful? Make that small is mighty.
13. NUC 11 Extreme Kit (NUC11BTMi9, Beast Canyon)
|+ Heaps of power potential||– No preconfigured models|
|+ Supports full-length graphics cards||– Larger than other tested NUCs|
|+ Generous port selection, including twin Thunderbolts 4||– Skull logo may not be for everyone|
|+ Modular Compute Element makes potential upgrades easy|
|+ Nifty RGB logo and ground-effects lighting|
NUC 11 Extreme Kit (NUC11BTMi9, Beast Canyon)
Intel’s NUC 11 Extreme Kit packs a ton of power via its innovative Compute Element module and full-monty GPU support, giving space-minded PC gamers and content creators a shoebox-size powerhouse.
Why We Picked It
Intel’s NUC 11 Extreme Kit stands apart from its Next Unit of Computing siblings by being big enough to accept a full-length desktop graphics card (its footprint is 14.1 by 7.4 inches). It’s obviously not a mini PC you can mount on the back of your monitor, but it’s a bare-bones construction project that can give you jumbo gaming or other desktop performance in what’s still a small-form-factor design. It’s comparable in size to an Xbox or PlayStation game console, but runs all Windows software—and decorates your desk with a wild RGB-illuminated skull faceplate and “ground effects” bottom light bars. Plus, Intel’s unique Compute Element design pushes the processor, main system memory, and other core components into a single plug-in module that makes future upgrades easy.
Who It’s For
The NUC 11 Extreme’s primary audience is hardcore gamers who carry their PCs to LAN parties. But tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers who can budget for some RAM, a solid-state drive, and a game-worthy GPU will enjoy building it as much as using it.
14. Apple Mac Studio (M1 Ultra)
|+ Incredible performance from M1 Ultra processor||– Display and accessories sold separately|
|+ Impressive industrial design||– Not user-upgradable after purchase|
|+ Plenty of ports|
The Bottom Line:
If you want power, the Apple Mac Studio with an M1 Ultra chip brings it in spades, elevating the elegant desktop PC with truly impressive processing and graphics.
Why We Picked It
We mostly refer to Windows systems when we talk about workstations, but macOS holds a well-earned part of the design and digital content creation market. The Mac Studio with Apple’s M1 Ultra processor delivers performance that’s simply stunning, well worth our test unit’s $6,199 price—you may mistake it for the petite Mac mini at first glance, but this is a superior alternative to the Intel Xeon-based Mac Pro. Its unibody aluminum chassis (7.7 inches square and 3.7 inches high) holds up to 128GB of memory and 8TB of storage. A plethora of ports support all the monitors and peripherals you could desire. And as for speed, well, we applaud PCs that perform our HandBrake video encoding test in under eight minutes. The M1 Ultra Studio does it in two and a half.
Who It’s For
Creative pros and macOS speed freaks won’t find a better desktop than the Mac Studio with the M1 Ultra chip. We found the M1 Max version underwhelming, but this one’s the real deal.
15. Apple Mac mini (M1, 256GB, Late 2020)
|+ New, lower starting price||– Boosting RAM and SSD capacity at purchase time is pricey|
|+ Much improved overall performance from 2018 model||– Fewer Thunderbolt ports than previous Mac mini|
|+ Especially promising bench results with naive “Universal” apps||– Memory no longer upgradable post-purchase|
|+ Surprisingly quiet and cool operation under load|
Apple Mac mini (M1, 256GB, Late 2020)
With a new lower starting price and Apple’s straining-at-the-leash M1 CPU, the Mac mini is far and away the most polished, potent tiny desktop in its class.
Why We Picked It
The Mac mini has been around since 2005, and it’s never been better. Its starting price of $699 is dirt cheap by Apple standards, but its move from Intel to Apple’s in-house M1 processor has revitalized the 7.7-inch-square (1.4 inches high) desktop. Its seamless aluminum design still makes the system the prettiest paperweight on your desk, and its combination of macOS and preinstalled productivity apps make it an unbeatably user-friendly family PC. The mini offers plenty of ports, surprisingly quiet operation, and lively performance.
Who It’s For
As long as they don’t mind buying a monitor, keyboard, and mouse a la carte, both consumers and small-office entrepreneurs will be delighted with the Mac mini. It’s an elegant all-around solution that forms an unbeatable ecosystem with your iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.
How to Buy a Desktop
Impressive variety and capability, right? We don’t deny that a laptop or tablet is a better pick for people who depend on business travel or whose computing consists mostly of basic surfing and typing from the living-room couch, but for small offices, families, creative pros, gamers, and tech tinkerers, desktops are often the best choice and the best value.
While desktops don’t come in as many distinct form factors as laptops, there’s great variation in computing power and room for upgrades and expansion. Let’s dive into these, and a bunch of other important factors, as you prepare to buy your next desktop.
How Much Should You Spend on a Desktop?
One of the desktop’s most alluring promises is the value it delivers. Your money simply goes further with desktop PCs and their components. Instead of buying a $700 laptop with a competent Intel Core i5 processor, you can get a $700 desktop with a more powerful Core i7 CPU in it, and maybe even squeeze in a dedicated graphics card.
You can find complete mini PCs for very light work and display-signage tasks for under $300, and perfectly serviceable small towers for $300 to $600. Gaming desktops with dedicated graphics cards start at around $500. You can also find all-in-one desktops, with the display and all of the computing components built into a single device, starting at around $400.
The thing with desktops is, opting for a cheap one does not carry some of the same risks you’d face with a like-priced laptop. A $250 Black Friday special or a steeply discounted refurbished desktop could perform just fine for basic computing, and you wouldn’t need to worry about the wear and tear on cheap materials that you might with a laptop of a similar price. That inexpensive laptop would be subject to the vagaries of daily commuting and the occasional drop from a coffee table. The desktop, in contrast, would need to stay put and just work.
At the top end of the market are business workstations, tricked-out gaming rigs, and magnificently engineered all-in-one PCs that cost several thousand dollars. Not only will a $3,000 gaming tower offer immense computing power today, but it should come with so much room for expansion and potential for upgradability that its useful life will be far longer than any laptop’s. And that’s before you even delve into the wild world of custom PCs: automotive-grade paint jobs, liquid cooling, and fanciful lighting and wiring.
IT-manageable, security-conscious business desktops—most of them nowadays made by Dell, HP, and Lenovo—have their own pricing dynamic and tend to cost more, all else being equal. That’s because of their premium warranty or support plans, as well as the possible addition of enterprise-specific silicon focused on manageability or security. Sometimes, part of the cost premium of business desktops reflects the PC maker’s guarantee that it will stock replacement components and upgrades for that line of machines for a fixed future period. That allows IT pros to count on the ability to continue servicing a fleet of a given business machine over that stretch of time.
Windows vs. Mac: Settle on an Operating System
The Mac vs. PC debate is one of the oldest in modern technology, and we’re not going to pick a side or try to settle that particular religious war here. But if you’re not wedded to one or the other by years of habit (or the peripherals and software you own) and are open to switching, here’s a quick rundown of your choices.
Windows is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system. Desktops that use it and previous versions of the OS are what most people typically rely on, so you’ll be assured of the best compatibility and the widest selection of third-party software. Desktops running Windows are also readily available below $500, making them attractive to casual users, families looking for a second PC, and bargain hunters.
Macs are an excellent choice if you’re already in an Apple-centric household, since they offer seamless compatibility with iPads and iPhones, including the ability to send and receive messages on any device connected to your iCloud account. The cost of entry will be higher than with the least expensive PCs, however.
Google’s Chrome OS is a viable alternative to Windows and macOS, but desktops running it (called Chromeboxes) are rare and best suited to niche uses like powering a restaurant menu display. A fourth option is to buy a desktop with no operating system at all and install an open-source one of your choosing, such as Ubuntu Linux. We don’t recommend going this route unless you’re technically savvy, willing to experiment, and okay fixing software compatibility issues and other quirks.
What Desktop Form Factor Do You Need?
Macs and Windows PCs are available in all three of the major desktop form factors: mini PCs that can fit on a bookshelf, sleek all-in-ones with built-in (and usually high-resolution) displays, and traditional desktop towers that are bulky but offer room for more or less easy expansion. These three forms each have strengths and weaknesses, and none of them is an obvious best choice for everyone. You’ll have to choose based on what you plan to do with your desktop and where you plan to put it.
For truly cramped quarters or light workloads, as well as for people who love the efficient use of space, a mini PC could be the best choice. They come in sizes ranging from tiny sticks not much larger than a USB thumb drive to small-form-factor (SFF) towers that may be nearly a foot tall but have compact footprints. The very smallest sizes have the benefit of disappearing behind an HDMI-equipped monitor or TV, and they contain a processor, memory, storage, and ports to hook up keyboards and mice. They’re economical and power-efficient, and can serve as adequate web browsing or multimedia viewing platforms. But know that the models at the truly tiny end of the scale offer no room for adding extra internal components, and their preinstalled parts are usually difficult or impossible to upgrade.
That said, you can find a fair mix of what qualify as mini PCs that do offer the ability to customize or upgrade components. Models based on or inspired by Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) platform can be as small as 5 inches square but still allow for one or two solid-state drives of your choosing, and the ability to choose and install your own RAM. They’re bigger than the “stick”-style PCs but much more flexible.
Traditional tower desktops offer even more flexibility, but also a lot more bulk. Nowadays, the differences between midsize and full-size towers are less well-defined, and some of the new PC case designs—from cubes to glass boxes—defy easy categorization. Still, nearly all desktop towers have generous amounts of interior space and full-size (a.k.a. ATX) motherboards, so you can install one or more (sometimes, many more) secondary storage drives, more RAM in empty slots on the motherboard, a video card if one isn’t installed, and in some remote cases, even a second graphics card for extreme gaming or graphics-accelerated tasks. (Note that not all desktop mini towers and towers can take a graphics upgrade. That is where reviews come in.)
An all-in-one (AIO) desktop is quite a different animal than both of these form factors. An AIO can save you some space, since the display is built in. An AIO’s value proposition comes down to space saving and whether you happen to be shopping for a desktop display at the same time. Though you can find budget AIOs with basic feature sets, lower resolutions, and non-touch screens, many new models offer touch-enabled screens, and some AIO panels have exceptionally high native resolutions of 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) or even 5K (5,120 by 2,880 pixels). Touch displays make them excellent choices for watching movies or serving as a multimedia hub in the kitchen or other public area of your home, though the very highest resolutions target content creators rather than consumers.
With a few exceptions for business-oriented models, you will give up a lot of room for expansion in an AIO versus traditional desktop tower. Cracking open an AIO for an upgrade or fix, while not impossible, is a bigger deal than opening the side of a desktop tower. Apple’s late-model iMacs are particularly difficult to open.
How Much Processing Power Is Enough?
One of the main benefits of a desktop tower is that it will use a desktop-grade CPU. That may sound obvious, but it’s a key distinction.
AMD and Intel, the two biggest makers of processors for PCs, offer desktop-class chips and laptop-class chips to system manufacturers, but often the CPU model names are similar and tricky to tell apart. For example, you will see Intel’s Core i7 in both laptops and desktops, but having a “true” desktop CPU versus one made for a mobile device makes a big performance difference.
A desktop CPU gives you more power for complex content-creation work, PC gaming, or math and scientific projects. Faster processors with four, six, eight, or even as many as 18 cores will benefit software written to take advantage of the extra cores. The desktop version of a given CPU will consume more power and generate more heat than versions designed for laptops, which must be incorporated into environments that have less thermal and power-delivery leeway. A desktop CPU also has greater wiggle room to incorporate a key feature, multithreading, that allows each of the CPU’s cores to address two processing threads at a time instead of just one. Multithreading (which Intel calls “Hyper-Threading”) can deliver a major performance boost when engaged with suitably equipped software.
The very highest-end desktop chips may require liquid cooling systems, which limits their use to high-end towers with lots of interior space. Processors in these families are specialized and expensive, and you’ll only want them if you have very specific software needs that you know, explicitly, can leverage their higher base and peak clock rates, as well as all of their addressable cores and threads. These are not casual purchases.
Many AIOs and mini PCs, conversely, use the same efficient, cooler-running types of CPUs that you’ll find in laptops. Intel typically labels these mobile-first chip designs with a CPU name containing “U,” “H,” or “P”; most desktop chips instead have a “T” or a “K,” or just a zero at the end. A mobile CPU might have the same number of processor cores as its desktop counterpart (four- and six-core chips are common in both), but its maximum power consumption will often be far lower. Also, the typical base and boost clock speeds may be lower, and the chip may not support multithreading. That said, many desktop PC buyers will be fine with these lower-powered CPUs for everyday work, and a little more.
For a typical tower using a true desktop-grade CPU, mainstream users should look for an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5; the Core i7 and Ryzen 7 are also excellent, powerful choices, but overkill for most folks who aren’t serious PC gamers, intensive multitaskers, or prosumer or pro video or image manipulators. If CPU power is critically important, though, these should suffice. The Core i9, Ryzen 9, Ryzen Threadripper, and Core X-Series are worthwhile only if you know your workflow is being held back by too few cores or threads, or you have extreme needs in terms of internal storage (for which the Threadripper and Core X can help with internal resources). Again, see our deep-dive on desktop CPUs to understand the nuances of these higher-end choices.
Do You Need a Powerful Graphics Card?
All computers have a CPU, but most laptops and many cheaper desktops don’t have a dedicated graphics processor, or GPU. Instead, their display output comes from a portion of the CPU, a slice of silicon known as an integrated graphics processor (IGP). An IGP is fine for basic tasks, such as checking your email, browsing the web, or even streaming videos. Doing productivity work on an IGP is completely within bounds. Indeed, most business desktops rely on IGPs.
That said, an IGP is not the answer for anyone who wants to run intensive 3D games, render architectural simulations, or perhaps train an artificial intelligence algorithm. These situations—especially games, but often pro-grade apps, too—can benefit from more muscular graphics. Times like these call for a graphics card, which will bring its own GPU to the game, and the most powerful of these are found in desktop PCs.
Choosing a graphics card is a complex affair. Gamers should consider the capabilities of their monitor first. A 4K monitor or one with a high refresh rate (144Hz or greater) will require a very powerful GPU (or occasionally even two GPUs) to display games at the monitor’s maximum potential. If you’re just looking to do some middle-of-the-road gaming on a 1080p monitor (and not looking to win any professional esports crowns), a mainstream card like those in Nvidia’s GeForce GTX series will do just fine. At the high end, current GPU choices for gaming desktops comprise Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3000 series, and AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 series. The RTX 2000 series and RX 5000 series respectively indicate previous-generation cards.
Meanwhile, creative professionals and other power users should consider the graphics-acceleration recommendations of the apps they plan to run, using the software maker’s system requirements as a guide. Graphics-accelerated video rendering or AI programs can benefit from the same types of GPUs as intensive 3D games. Professionals eyeing workstations will want to consider Nvidia’s RTX A series lineup or AMD’s Radeon Pro models. Check out our deep-dive guide to graphics cards for much, much more on the nuances of today’s video cards.
How Much Storage and Memory Should Your Desktop Have?
While powerful CPUs and GPUs are mostly relegated to desktop towers, nearly every desktop form factor can handle copious amounts of storage and memory. This is thanks to the advent of higher-capacity memory modules and especially solid-state drives (SSDs). The latter take up vastly less space than the spinning hard drives of old.
It’s still possible to find desktops with only spinning hard drives, but we recommend avoiding these and choosing an SSD as the main boot drive whenever possible. Some desktops feature a single-drive combination of an SSD and a hard drive. A “true” SSD is really the only way to go as a boot drive today, though, considering how far prices have dropped in the last couple of years.
A single 500GB or 512GB SSD is fine for most users. A 250GB or 256GB SSD is also a common size for a boot drive these days, but it’s a little tight if you store much locally. Anyone with large media and game collections will want to consider several terabytes of storage across multiple drives. Consider choosing a fast SSD as the boot drive, and one or more large-capacity but slower hard drives for bulk storage of capacity-sapping video or games. A typical configuration in this case is one 512GB SSD and two or more hard drives with at least 1TB of space on each. Such a setup can be more affordable than you might think—an SSD plus one hard drive is sometimes seen on under-$1,000 desktop towers.
If you think you’ll add storage later, consider how many expansion bays your desktop has. A combination of two or more 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch bays should be enough, as these can accommodate any type of traditional SSD or hard drive. You’ll also want to ensure your desktop has at least one M.2 slot to accept a PCI Express SSD as the main boot drive, since that will offer the fastest throughput speeds. In most new systems, the boot drive will come as an M.2 drive. These drives are very small, the size and thickness of a stick of gum.
While a desktop’s SSD stores your data, its system memory (or RAM) works with the CPU to run apps and helps define its capacity to multitask. Memory capacities of 8GB or 16GB are fine for most users, and these are the most common configurations on entry-level or midrange desktops of all forms and sizes.
Few people will see much benefit from memory amounts above 16GB, but there are exceptions. Gaming PCs above the budget level should have at least 16GB of RAM, and 32GB is a prudent upgrade for esports hounds who want to play and simultaneously edit and stream in-game footage.
Finally, assuming your professional software can address higher memory amounts, professional workstations should have at least 32GB of memory with error-correcting code (ECC) capabilities to keep everything running smoothly. You’ll want to follow the guidance of the software maker, in that case.
What Wired and Wireless Connectivity Does My PC Need?
You might be able to excuse a relative lack of input and output ports on a sleek AIO. The screen and speakers are built in, and you’ll likely use a wireless keyboard and mouse, anyway. But mini PCs and desktop towers need the right selection of ports. At a minimum, they’ll have to connect to a display, speakers or headphones, and a power source.
On all but the very tiniest of mini PCs, you should look for at least three USB 3.0 (or higher) ports, at least one of which should be the newer, oval-shaped Type-C variety if you have any compatible peripherals that plug directly into that kind of port. You’ll also typically find an HDMI output (and perhaps another video output or two, such as DisplayPort or VGA), a 3.5mm audio jack, a connector for an external Wi-Fi antenna, and a receptacle for a physical lock. Note that some mini PCs use scaled-down “mini” versions of HDMI or DisplayPort, which require a different kind of input cable or a dongle. Make sure the machine’s video outputs are compatible with your display and its cabling.
Larger tower PCs will have many more ports, offering support for pretty much any peripheral you need to connect. Expect six or more USB ports, for starters. On larger towers, one or two of these should support Thunderbolt over USB-C. Also a given: an Ethernet jack for wired networking, and multiple DisplayPort and HDMI jacks on the dedicated GPU (assuming there is one) for connecting one or more external monitors. Note that a tower with a graphics card may also have video outputs that stem from the motherboard, but you should only use the video outputs on the GPU.
Many towers will also have multiple audio ports, including possibly an optical output and ports for individual speaker channels in a surround-sound setup. Make sure that these match up with any gear you may have; the number of surround-sound jacks can vary depending on the PC and its motherboard. Note that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, while reliably present on even the cheapest laptops and many smaller desktops, is not a given on larger towers.
High-end workstations and gaming desktops sometimes have a second Ethernet port for doubling network bandwidth or for always-connected redundancy, while business desktops sometimes offer legacy connectors such as VGA video outputs, PS/2 peripheral ports, or serial ports. The throwback-style ports are there for people who still need to use them with older, specialized hardware such as point-of-sale scanners or industrial equipment. Of course, you can buy dongles and adapters for these special port needs, but the possibility of having them built in is a key benefit of choosing a desktop over a laptop.
When evaluating a desktop, beyond looking at what ports are present, also evaluate where they are. Are they easily accessible? Towers tend to have a few commonly used ports on the top or front (usually a headphone jack and few USB ports). Some AIOs, in contrast, have some of their key ports hidden behind the stand, in hard-to-reach places.
Screen Size, Expansion Bays, and More
Some buying concerns, no less crucial than the ones above, apply only to certain types of desktops. Deciding on a screen size and type is critical for AIO shoppers, for instance. A touch-enabled display with support for in-plane switching (IPS) to widen viewing angles is nice to have for an AIO that serves as the family’s calendar or photo album, but know that touch support is not currently available on Apple’s iMacs.
Give some deep thought to the screen resolution, whatever the panel size. A 4K or even 5K resolution makes for a breathtaking screen, especially one that’s 27 inches or larger, but such resolutions often add significantly to the price. As a result, you may want to settle for a screen with a full HD or 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) native resolution and spend money to upgrade other components instead.
Also look for multiple cameras, one facing the rear, that could make an AIO a good choice, say, for an ID-card printing station. Fan noise is also a consideration with AIOs, since their computing components will be on your desk instead of hidden underneath it.
Desktop towers have many of their own idiosyncrasies. Enthusiasts who like to tinker with components but aren’t interested in building their own PCs from scratch will need to pay special attention to the number and type of expansion bays and how easy it is to access power and data cables.
They should also check the maximum wattage rating of the power supply unit (PSU) and whether or not the case has the clearance for bigger coolers (or the mounting points for liquid cooling gear), if they might plan to add a more powerful CPU later on. A low-wattage PSU, such as a 300-watt model used in a desktop with integrated graphics, might preclude adding a graphics card later on without upgrading the PSU, too. Note also, that some very inexpensive desktop PCs use low-wattage, custom-design PSUs that can’t support a graphics card and also aren’t easy to upgrade, due to their use of nonstandard connectors on the motherboard side. Again, this is where a careful reading of reviews comes in.
Desktop towers and mini PCs also require separate speakers or headphones to deliver audio. If you don’t already have them, you’ll have to spend extra money to buy some, and in the case of dedicated speakers, they’ll take up room on your desk. For people who don’t care as much about audio quality and just want loud enough audio to hear family members on the other end of a Skype call, the built-in speakers of an AIO should work just fine.
When Is the Best Time to Buy a Desktop?
For most people in the market for an inexpensive desktop tower, there’s no single best time to buy. While traditional sale holidays such as Black Friday can net you the odd bargain, when you find a system whose features, price, and performance match what you’re looking for, take it home.
That said, people who need copious amounts of CPU or GPU muscle (and who have a clear idea of what hardware moves the performance needle with the apps they use) should pay attention to PC-component release cycles. Traditionally, Intel has announced new desktop CPU generations once a year, with the new chips showing up in PCs in the fall or early in the holiday shopping period. (This has shown more variance in recent years.)
New graphics-card releases are less frequent and depend on the vagaries of technical advances—Nvidia’s highly successful GeForce GTX 1000 series, for example, was the cutting edge for several years before the first GeForce RTX cards were announced.
Keeping track of PC-component release cycles helps you become aware of what’s new before you buy, and also what is going off-market. For shoppers seeking maximum value or on a tight budget, getting a desktop based on a discounted last-generation (but still powerful) CPU or GPU can be the way to go.
Shoppers looking for an all-in-one PC, meanwhile, should pay attention to announcements from Apple. Many other manufacturers end up copying—and, sometimes, improving upon—the field-leading designs of the Apple iMac.
Where Should I Buy a Desktop?
Since you won’t be lugging a desktop around nearly as much as you would a laptop, it’s less important to handle the chassis and test-drive its build quality in the store before you bring it home. Still, if the desktop comes with peripherals included, it can be helpful to type a few lines and move the mouse around in the store. And setting eyes on an all-in-one desktop is more crucial than with a typical tower desktop or mini PC. The screen is an integral part of what you are buying, and eyes-on time matters, especially if you’re not well-versed, say, in the differences between a 24-inch and 27-inch panel, or a 1080p screen versus a 4K one.
If you limit yourself only to the selection at your local electronics outlet, though, you’ll miss out on many great desktops. In fact, some configurations can be exclusive to a single reseller, such as Best Buy, Costco, or Walmart. Other merchants, such as Micro Center, frequently have in-store-only deals that aren’t available anywhere online.
This is where return policies come in handy. If you find a desktop with your ideal specifications online but can’t audition it locally, a seller with a liberal return policy is your best friend. Just make sure you’ve got adequate time to return it, if it ends up not working out.
How Long a Warranty Does My Desktop Need?
Most desktop makers offer one-year warranties on parts and labor, with extensions available for as many as five years at an additional charge. Before you pay to extend the warranty, though, check your credit-card account benefits guide—your issuer might cover mishaps for a short period of time after you buy a new product, and possibly extend the manufacturer’s warranty, too. (Many MasterCard accounts include a doubling of the standard warranty period, up to one year, for example.)
If your card issuer doesn’t cover you, and you plan on keeping your desktop for several years, look into the cost of added coverage. Some manufacturers and resellers offer wide ranges of extended warranties; expect to spend $100 to $300 for one of these options. Our rule of thumb is that if a warranty costs more than 15% of the desktop’s purchase price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or services that minimize downtime and protect precious data that you can’t replace.
Should I Buy a Refurbished Desktop?
Many people considering desktops in the $200-to-$500 range should also consider a refurbished machine. They can be excellent values in certain circumstances.
Large corporations lease fleets of desktops for a few years at a time, after which third parties refurbish them and offer them for resale on eBay, as well as via retailers such as Best Buy, Newegg, and TigerDirect. To find them, search or filter the product category pages for “off-lease” or refurbished systems.
These refurbished PCs are often surprisingly cheap ($150 to $250 is common), and many are desktop towers, so they’re easy to upgrade or service if a component goes south. They do come with drawbacks. Their components are usually several years behind the cutting edge, they may be in imperfect cosmetic condition (some refurbishers grade condition on an A-B-C scale), and different refurbishers can have varying levels of attention to detail.
Still, if you’re looking for a cheap desktop to stow in a cabinet or under a desk, used just to check your email and calendar, refurbs can be a fine option. Just be sure to buy from a seller with a reasonable return policy in case you get a dud.
So, Which Desktop Is the Best One to Buy for You?
Armed with all of the knowledge and decision points above, you’re almost ready to shop. The final consideration is how well a desktop PC performs. We review hundreds of PCs every year, evaluating their features and testing their performance against peers in their respective categories. That way, you’ll know which are best suited for gaming, which is our favorite general-purpose all-in-one, and which is the best if all you need is a small, powerful system you can get up and running quickly.
Our current favorite desktops are below. Not finding anything that looks good? Check out the full feed of all of our latest desktop reviews, as well as our narrower-focused guides to our favorite all-in-one PCs, business desktops, and gaming desktops.