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Desktop computer Buyer's Guide

Updated on January 2010 - by Digital Versus Desktop computer buyer's guide

Desktop computers offer more modularity than laptops and while they often take on the aspect of vulgar beige boxes, some are also now more elegantly designed and more functional and they give a better gaming experience than laptops.

There’s a very wide choice and what you go for will depend on your usage. What do you want your machine to do for you?
Use the internet, edit video and photos or play the latest 3D games?

1 - Making a choice

Budget – office documents, internet and viewing photos

For internet use and viewing photos from your digital camera there’s no need to go for anything too powerful. Even a small processor will easily handle this level of use but we do nevertheless recommend you go for a dual core model. You should also get a minimum of 2 GB of RAM. Opting for anything higher won’t improve performance in terms of the usage you’re looking for. When it comes to the hard drive, again you need to think about what you’re using your machine for. If you stock or want to stock a big film library, go for a minimum of 500 GB. Otherwise 160 Go will be fine. Lastly, a built-in graphics solution will be enough for looking at photos or viewing films on your screen – no need to get an additional graphics card here

  1. Dell Inspiron 560
    £279 - £629 Compare Prices »
  2. Apple iMAC Core Duo
    £459 - £1,799 Compare Prices »
  3. Generic Desktop computer
    £135 - £1,938 Compare Prices »
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Multimedia – an all-purpose computer

If you also want to use your computer for gaming from time to time, you’ll have to pay a bit more and move up the range. The processor needs to be faster but you won’t need to go for a quad-core model. You’ll also need 3 GB of RAM but not necessarily any more. The main thing is the graphics card. You’ll need to consider how much gaming you want to do and how old the gamers are. Young children won’t be playing the most demanding 3D titles, a mid-range model will be enough for them. Teenagers are more likely to want to play more realistic games and, for them, it’s better to go for a high-end card that can process 3D data rapidly. The storage capacity of the hard drive needs to be 500 GB minimum.

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  2. HP 6000 Pro
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Expert – Video editing and 3D modelling

For this type of usage, you’ll need to prioritise processor power above everything. Here, you absolutely need to go for a quad-core. The faster it is, the more you’ll cut down video encoding and 3D rendering time. It’s also best not to skimp on RAM but head straight for 4 GB. You’ll also want a 64-bit operating system (Windows, Mac OS or Linux) that allows you to get the most out of the RAM. When it comes to storage, it’s best to have two separate hard drives. The first can be used to store the operating system and software. It should be as fast as possible and, if your budget can stretch to it, buy an SSD, a flash-based drive. The second will be used for storage and can be standard in terms of speed. Once again, a minimum of 500 GB is recommended. The choice of graphics card is also important. Some video editing software can harness graphics card power to accelerate processing. A fast model may well be the right choice if your editing software is compatible. When it comes to 3D modelling, you’ll need to opt for at least a mid-range model. If you’re using a pro application, you may also want to go for a pro video card specially optimised for such software.

  1. Dell Inspiron 570
    £269 - £599 Compare Prices »
  2. Generic Desktop computer
    £135 - £1,938 Compare Prices »
  3. Dell Inspiron 560
    £279 - £629 Compare Prices »
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Gamer – gaming and nothing but

On a machine reserved mostly for video gaming, you’ll need to prioritise three points. The first and most important is the graphics card. If you want to make sure your gaming is fluid and that you can activate all 3D effects, you’ll have to go for a high-end model. If your budget allows and if the screen you’re using is in high definition, you may even want to go for a model incorporating two chips on the same card. When it comes to the processor, there’s no need for a quad-core. There are very few games that use more than two cores and the gain in performance in comparison to what you get with a dual core processor will be minimal at best. Best to go for a dual core with a high clock as it will outperform a lower clocked quad core here. In terms of RAM we recommend at least 3 GB or even 4 GB. Your hard drive choice will be based on how many games you wish to stock on it. We do however recommend a minimum of 500 GB.

  1. Apple iMAC Core Duo
    £459 - £1,799 Compare Prices »
  2. Dell Inspiron 560
    £279 - £629 Compare Prices »
  3. Apple Mac Mini
    £263 - £799 Compare Prices »
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2 - The science

The really important aspects of the spec

  • - Memory :

    random access memory or RAM is where data that is actively being processed by your computer is stored. For a standard computer, go for 2 GB or more for comfortable usage. In any case, avoid models with just 1 GB.

  • - Processor :

    the processor is the computer’s brain. With 2 cores or more you’ll be able to use several applications at the same time and accelerate processing time (in as much as a given piece of software can use several cores in parallel).

  • - Graphics chip :

    the graphics chipset processes the images on your screen. Although not as crucial when it comes to office docs, the choice of chipset comes into its own in 3D display. If you want a high quality gaming experience, bypass entry-level cards and go straight for the mid to top end.

  • - Hard drive :

    this is your computer’s memory. The higher the capacity the more photos, videos and files of other type you’ll be able to store. Go for at least 160 GB. If this proves insufficient in the long run, don’t throw your machine away, just get yourself an external hard drive.

What you’ll need to go a bit further

  • - Optical disc players :

    most computers have DVD rewriters. Blu-ray players, for HD films, are still very much in the minority. They are however gradually becoming more common on multimedia oriented high-end machines.

  • - Type of casing :

    your choice of casing may depend on how much space you have. All the same, small casings and “mini” type computers have less modularity, are less easily modified. You’ll find it hard (even impossible) to house a new graphics card or a second hard drive in one of these or to change the power supply in case of any problem.

3 - Accessories

Card readers

If you have a digital camera or SLR you’ll also need a memory card reader. Though you can link your camera to your computer with a USB cable, transferring photos and video is then very slow. A reader will accelerate the process for you. For example, transferring 1 GB (or 200 photos) straight onto the computer takes 6 minutes, whereas if you use a good card reader the same job takes only a minute.


Instant messaging software such as Live Messenger is now extremely common. With a webcam, you’ll even be able to do some videoconferencing. Choose a model with a built-in microphone that fits nicely on your screen.

Wireless keyboard and mouse

Wireless keyboards and mice will allow you to reduce the number of cables on your desk. You’ll often find multimedia buttons built in to a keyboard giving direct access to certain programmes (instant messaging, internet navigator) or functions such as volume levels. The mouse should have lateral buttons for managing navigation on internet pages. It’s best if it’s powered with batteries (rechargeables is best). Of course you need to make sure you have a set of spares on hand.


While a good number of screens have built-in speakers, rarely do they give quality sound. They’re fine for YouTube but you’re better off going for an additional system for listening to music or watching films. You should get at least a 2.1 kit – two speakers and a subwoofer.

Multifunction printers

Modern inkjet printers are also usually combined with a scanner and colour copier. The other innovation is the arrival of WiFi on an increasing number of products. Apart from the fact that you lose a cable, WiFi also allows you to share the household printer among several desktop or laptop computers more easily.

LCD screen

Computers sometimes come with a small flat screen (under 19 inches) and sometimes without a screen at all. If you’re buying one separately, make sure you go for at least a 22-inch screen. You can get them, with a fixed base and VGA connection only from £70 or £80 upwards. Moving up the range, you’ll be able to adjust the screen in height and add DVI and HDMI sockets for separate audio as well as images or to link a games console. 23-inch screens start at around the £130 mark.

4 - Useful links

Buyers Guide

Which desktop computer is right for you?

Which desktop computer is right for you?

Everything you need to know to find a desktop computer that meets your needs.

View buyers guides »

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