Customer: I need to replace an old Acer desktop and have no idea what I should buy. I don’t use it for gaming. I do use it to watch some TV via an HDMI cable to my TV and I might want to download films. It’s mainly used for photos, web browsing and emails. What sort of things should I be aware of?
Me: There are at least two interesting types of desktop computer: all-in-ones with touch screens, and high-end gaming PC’s. Traditional desktops are boring and almost nobody talks about them. However, in this case, I think boring is best. The ideal desktop is one that keeps on working quietly and reliably for five years or more.
Almost any desktop PC that you can find will do what you want, so the final choice will depend on how much space you have, and how much you want to spend.
Most desktop PCs come in tower cases of various sizes. If you want to add expansion cards and extra hard drives, then it helps to have a large case. If you’re never going to open it up and add to it, a mini-tower (MT) or small form factor (SFF) case will be fine.
Most desktop PCs come with a built-in DVD optical drive or Blu-ray that will also read and write CDs. If you want to copy Blu-ray movies as well, then you will need to specify a Blu-ray drive.
It’s also good to have a built-in multi-card reader that will read SD memory cards from cameras, voice recorders and other devices. These are the modern equivalent of floppy disks, if anyone remembers those.
For internal storage, you will also need a hard drive. Check the size of the one in your current PC by opening Windows Explorer, selecting My Computer, and seeing what it says for Local Disk (C:). Make sure the PC you buy has at least twice as much storage space, preferably five times as much. Currently, 1TB drives are cheap and 2TB drives are affordable. You won’t need that much unless you want to store lots of movies — probably more than 100, depending on length and resolution. You can always install a second hard drive later, or get a friend to install one for you.
For external connections, it’s best to have some USB 3.0 ports, though most desktop PCs also have USB 2.0 ports as well, both front and rear.
Processor and operating system
The processor and memory are among the most expensive parts of a desktop PC, and they are where you can save some money, if you need to.
Currently, I recommend the Intel Core i7-4790K as the best-value Ivy Bridge chip for someone who might want to overclock it, and the Core i7-4790 for people who don’t know what overclocking means. For your purposes, any Core i5-4xxx or Core i3-4xxx processor would be fine. If you’re buying for the long term, it’s probably not worth dropping down to a Pentium-branded chip. It’s nicer to have power to spare.
Intel Core chips now have built-in graphics, which means you don’t need to buy a desktop PC with a dedicated graphics card. You can always install a cheap graphics card later, if you find you need one.
Most desktop PCs come with 4GB or memory as standard, and unless you go in for heavyweight tasks such as editing movies, this is enough for Microsoft Windows 8.1 and 10. More memory is always better, so don’t turn away the chance to have more, if the cost is nominal. Desktop PCs with 6GB and 8GB of memory are common.
You will also have to decide whether you want to buy a new screen and/or speakers, or whether you can re-use the ones you already have. If your current screen is less than 22in, it’s worth considering a 24in or larger screen, now they are relatively cheap. If you plan to run Windows10, you should also consider buying a touch-sensitive monitor.
Bear in mind that all versions of Windows support two screens without any problems. You can use the old screen alongside the new one, even if they’re different sizes.
Whether to go for Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 is a matter of some debate. I like Windows 8.1 a lot on touch-screen tablets and laptops, but I don’t use it on my desktops. Play with it in a shop and see how you like it.