Why on Earth would you want to buy a desktop PC or Mac in 2016? Simply put, there are computing needs that mobile devices like laptops and tablets can't fulfill as well as the stalwart desktop. Here's what to consider when deciding on your next desktop PC.
It's About the Power
Desktop-class CPUs and graphics processors are simply more powerful than their mobile counterparts for the same money. They give you the power to finish whatever task you're working on in less time. Desktop components are less expensive in general, so instead of buying a $500 laptop with a competent Intel Atom processor, you can buy a $500 desktop with a powerful Intel Core i5 desktop CPU in it.
You can get desktops with screens that are already built in, or they can be connected externally to a monitor. In either case, you're almost guaranteed to have a bigger display than even the largest desktop-replacement laptop, which tops out at about 18 inches in size. Another plus is that expandable desktops can accommodate multiple graphics cards to support more than two simultaneous displays.
For some sensitive situations, buying a desktop gives you physical control of the computer and its use. Limiting access to desktop PCs lets you control who sees confidential business data, and the combination of a desktop PC and a large screen means that parents can monitor what their children are doing online via a quick glance across the room.
Which OS? Windows? Mac? Other?
You probably already know the answer to this question, but here's a quick rundown of your choices:
Windows 10 is the latest iteration of Microsoft's operating system. Desktops with Win 10 and previous versions are what most people typically use, so you'll be assured of the best compatibility and widest selection of third-party software. This also applies to browser plugins, since some only work with Windows.
Apple's OS X is currently up to version 10.11 (El Capitan). It's a great choice if you're already in an Apple-centric household, since it interfaces seamlessly with devices like iPads, iPhones, and with all your iTunes purchases and subscriptions.
Chrome OS has the best buzz of the alternative desktop operating systems, since it essentially runs the Chrome browser on desktop PC hardware. You'll need to use always-on Internet service for the best results from this cloud-based ecosystem, but homebound desktops are usually connected 24/7.
Desktops with Android and Linux are harder to finder, particularly in retail configurations, but both have their merits. Android lets you use more than two million apps, but in practice many have scaling issues on desktop screens, and you'll definitely run into problems with the lack of an accelerometer while controlling some games.
While it has its fans, Linux is more of a do-it-yourself operating system, where you'll have to rely on your own faculties for installation, sourcing programs, and support. Chrome OS, OS X, and Windows are certainly easier choices if you simply want to buy a desktop and use it right away.
How Much Desktop Do You Need?
If all you need to do is surf the Internet, write word documents, or make simple spreadsheets, then an entry-level desktop is the way to go. You will have to make some compromises in terms of graphics, power, RAM, and storage compared with higher-end systems, but then again, you won't be paying as much, as entry-level PCs typically cost less than $600.
You'll find a wide selection of Intel and AMD processors in this category, from the budget AMD Athlon X4 and Sempron, as well as Intel Atom and Celeron up to the slightly more expensive (and much more powerful) Intel Core i3 and i5 processor. You should look for at least 4GB of system memory, while 2GB is acceptable for sub-$300 systems. 16GB of eMMC flash storage is found on the least expensive desktop, but 64GB of flash storage or a 500GB hard drive is a better option for most users.
A sub-category of entry-level desktops, the chromebox (and its all-in-one counterpart, the chromebase) is a desktop that runs on Google's Chrome OS. Both can be found for as little as $179, utilizing free and paid Google cloud services to store your files, install your programs, and manage your digital life. If you spend a great portion of your computing life online, they're a great alternative to yet another inexpensive Windows desktop, but given that they typically have scant onboard storage (think 64GB maximum of flash storage), you'll need a good wireless connection to be able to access the cloud-based storage and apps.
Midrange desktops will stay functional longer, thanks to more CPU power and speed, memory for multitasking, storage, or a larger built-in screen. You will be making some tradeoffs compared with high-end systems, but even demanding users will be able to find a midrange system that will last them for at least five or six years. Look for a capable AMD A8 or A10 processor, or an Intel Core i5 CPU in this category, along with 8GB to 16GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive or at least 256GB solid-state-drive (SSD) storage.
High-end systems offer top-of-the-line components, like the latest CPUs that will give you all the power you need for multimedia projects, loads of storage (a 512GB SSD or at least 1TB hard drive, but typically 2TB or more), 3D graphics capability for gaming, or a combination of all three. These high-performance machines typically start at $1, 500, and can go up to $5, 000 and beyond for workstations or gaming rigs with customized paint jobs and multiple GPUs.
While sticking to one of the three price ranges, we recommend that you buy just a little more than you need for the tasks you do now if you can. That way, you future-proof your purchase and won't have to shop for a replacement for a while.
What Do You Need to Do?
General-purpose desktops, which are the kind you typically see in retail stores, are well suited to general office tasks, surfing the Internet, video conferencing, and the like. They're designed to be a jack of all trades: good at most tasks, but rarely great at specialized functions like multimedia creation or gaming.
Performance PCs, which include multimedia machines and workstations, will give you more power for complex creative or math and scientific projects. Faster processors with four, six, or even 18 cores make quick work of your tasks. More memory (8GB to 16GB) is installed, so you can keep larger images on screen while editing a video, rendering a a 3D model, or processing a humongous spreadsheet full of numbers that you have to graph. You'll also find extra storage in the form of large hard drives and SSDs that will let you hold a multitude of work documents and program library files.