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Desktop PC Buying Guide
Table of contents
The desktop PC in this guide refers to a completely pre-built desktop computer, which is different to a self-built or DIY (do it yourself) desktop computer system. Desktop PCs are offered by brandname manufacturers or SIs (Systems Integrators).
Building a computer is a non-choice for many individuals – it lacks appeal because it is a rather technical process and needs more than general knowledge and information about computer hardware. Pre-built computers are easier choices for those who just want a computer to use, leaving brandname desktop PCs and laptops as the only realistic choices.
Laptop computers are designed to be much more mobile than desktop PCs. However, there are many applications and scenarios that do not require much mobility, such as heavy home and office computing. For these usages, you will get more performance bang for the buck with a desktop PC. There are also applications that demand extremely high performance beyond the bounds of what a laptop computer can deliver, although this is improving all the time. This sometimes leaves the desktop PC as the only available choice.
In addition, desktop PCs allow for extensive upgrading to be performed, allowing you to make the most out of your investment.
Desktop PCs are very different from laptops. Since most components used in brandname desktop computers are standardized, there is not really much that distinguishes products occupying the same market segment from the different manufacturers (of course, this does not include the design of the computer case). In fact, you can build an almost exact duplicate by yourself quite easily.
For the Home and Home Office
Cutting-edge performance is not a necessity for the majority of home users. Almost any mainstream desktop computer on offer can satisfy normal home and home office users since surfing the web, watching DVDs and word processing work do not require high computing horsepower. Of course, you can still opt for a faster computer for gaming and simple multimedia processing work, but this typically comes at higher cost.
Business Desktops & Workstations
Business desktop computers aren't tremendously different to home office PCs. Running Word, Excel and web browsers cannot be regarded as highly demanding applications, so the hardware configuration does not need to be extreme at all.
Gaming is a highly demanding application, especially for the video card and CPU. If you want to enjoy the latest 3D games using full special effects at high screen resolution, it may be worthwhile to consider a top-end gaming desktop PC. You can still play games with a mainstream gaming machine, but you may have to compromise your enjoyment by turning down the special effects and scaling down the resolution to ensure a smooth gaming experience.
Media Center/Home Theater PC
Playing, recording, saving and editing high quality audio and video are what a media center computer does most often. Since high quality video processing requires extremely high computing power, the performance of the processor and memory (as well as its capacity) is of great importance. Hard drive capacity is also vital to media center computers, because an hour of high definition video can occupy tens of gigabytes (GB) of hard disk space.
Desktop computers are composed of many different components - both hardware and software. Having a basic understanding of some of the most important parts will help you to make the right choice more easily. Here are the areas you should pay attention to when choosing a desktop PC:
The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is essentially the brain of the computer. It interprets and executes instructions and data contained in software programs. It is also the largest single determinant of system performance. The more generic term "processor" is often used to refer to a CPU as well.
A processor brand/series will often include a number of models that are capable of different operating speeds. A faster operating speed usually corresponds to higher performance relative to the other models in the same series. The operating speed of one processor cannot be used as a basis for comparison with a processor from another series or brand.
The memory we refer to here is the main memory in a computer system, also known as RAM (Random Access Memory). It is essentially the computer's workspace - the place where a computer temporarily stores data and programs. More memory allows you to run more programs simultaneously, and to store a greater amount of data for faster access by your computer (mostly the processor). Therefore, memory performance is an important factor to consider as well, since faster memory allows more data to be transferred in a given amount of time.
The hard drive stores almost all the data required by the computer system including the operating system, application programs and user data. Hard drives provide massive storage capacities for all types of data including images, documents, movies, music, games. This means more fun for you and greater functionality for your computer.
There are two types of video/graphics cards: discrete and integrated. Many desktop PCs utilize chipsets with integrated graphics units, which are not quite as powerful as most discrete (add-on) video cards in terms of 3D rendering power in games and other 3D applications. These computers are perfect for basic business and general home usage, however, since the user does not have to invest more for a discrete video card.
DVD-ROM or DVD/CD-RW combo drives are very popular optical drives. If you only read data discs and watch DVD movies, a DVD-ROM drive is sufficient. A DVD/CD-RW combo drive can do all of the above and has the added ability to write/burn CD-R/RW discs (700MB max capacity). If, however, you require more data storage or wish to burn your own DVD movies, a DVD burner is recommended (single-layer DVDs provide a capacity of 4.3GB). In order to watch or burn Blu-ray discs, you will need to purchase a Blu-ray optical drive for your machine.
The operating system or OS is essentially the software program that manages the hardware and other software resources of a computer system. A computer cannot work without an operating system.
The monitor is one of the most important components of the total PC solution. Please read our LCD monitor buying guide for more information.
Some desktop PCs on Newegg come with a keyboard, mouse and even a pair of speakers. As a computer cannot be used without a keyboard and a mouse, purchasing your own becomes necessary for desktop PCs that do not include these two input devices. Please read our Keyboard buying guide and Mouse buying guide for more information.
If you have many external devices that need connecting (e.g. photo printer, scanner, digital camera), make sure there are sufficient matching I/O ports such as USB and IEEE1394 (aka Firewire or i.Link) on the computer you are planning to purchase.