Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our
review process here.
We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.
The best desktop PCs make a case for themselves against the best laptops by providing more bang for your buck. If you’re going to forgo the portability that modern laptops provide, you should be rewarded with higher specs for roughly the same price and, luckily, modern desktops have been delivering amazing value.
Not only does that power edge allow them to compete with portables, but a lot of prebuilt manufacturers are now producing machines that rival the capabilities of any PC you’d assemble yourself at nearly the same price. Gone are the days where the convenience of having a machine built for you meant paying a massive premium. These days, prebuilts are being assembled so cheaply and efficiently that you’re paying closer to cost than ever before. We’ve tested a huge assortment of the best machines from top manufacturers to pull out the very best in a wide range of categories, so regardless of your specific use case, you should find something that suits you listed below.
If you’re looking for an all-around powerhouse, the best desktop PC for you will likely be some configuration of the Alienware Aurora R9, whether it’s a more modest build or a roaring beast ready to tackle the most demanding modern games/software. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a machine specifically tailored for productivity, the Microsoft Surface Studio 2 is an incredible option, custom-built for tasks like photo and video editing and the perfect choice for a home or business office.
About Our Trusted Experts
David Beren is a tech journalist with more than ten years of experience under his belt. He founded his own tech site, and is expert in PCs and computer hardware, making him uniquely qualified to assemble this list for Lifewire.
Gannon Burgett is a tech writer who’s made a living for more than a decade covering the industry for a number of leading outlets. He has an extensive background in PC hardware and peripherals, including a specialization in gaming-specific gear.
As a technology journalist with six years (and counting) of experience, Rajat Sharma has tested out hundreds of PCs, ranging from budget laptops to top-of-the-line gaming rigs. He also knows quite a bit about building custom PCs.
The Ultimate Desktop PC Buying Guide
In a world where smartphones and tablets are the norm, desktop PCs are making a comeback. Generally, a great desktop PC will make a case for itself against a well-rated laptop by providing a better value and power, especially when it comes to gaming and graphics processing. If you’re not so concerned with portability when looking to invest in a new computer, you should be looking at higher specifications for roughly the same price, and there are a slew of options on the market today, priced comparably to the best laptops, with such value.
Desktop PCs work well for multi-monitor setups geared toward productivity or for those who use a computer for long stretches of time. They have all the necessary ports, unlike some laptops today, which may only offer two USB-C ports. They also allow you to use a separate, larger keyboard and mouse—an ideal setup for people across professions. For example, those who work in finance often benefit from a number pad, and those using design and editing programs like Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Premiere tend to have better precision with a mouse than a trackpad.
Whatever the case may be, it’s almost certain that there’s a PC out there for you, as these machines, both prebuilt and customized, are more affordable than ever before. Read on for our guide to finding the best desktop PC for you.
Why Choose a Desktop PC Over a Laptop?
As mentioned in the introduction, desktop PCs work well for increased power, improved productivity, and graphical performance. It’s also worth noting that new laptops are not as upgradable anymore, as thinner laptops must have their hard drives soldered into the motherboard, and you can’t change a hard drive if you can’t take it out. So, you’ll have to pay a premium when you purchase a laptop to have everything on it in the highest specifications.
Upgrades on PCs, on the other hand, are much easier. Processor, RAM, graphics cards, storage, and other components can all be upgraded. And a big part of improving your experience comes from changing the monitor (a non-variable for laptops). There are larger options and curved options, which add to functionality based on your needs, and we’ll get into more specifics on those later.
How Will You Use It?
Desktop PCs are a great setup in many professions. Financiers and accountants often benefit from a number pad, while designers and editors tend to have better precision on Adobe programs with a mouse rather than with a trackpad. Typists and gamers might prefer a mechanical keyboard or additional accessories like trackballs and controllers. And when it comes to editing spreadsheets and documents, the bigger screen or multiple monitors you can get with a desktop pays dividends.
Ultimately, due to a combination of increased screen real estate and increased power, desktop PCs can simply do more in terms of productivity, games, and photo/video editing. If any of these use cases sound useful to you and the lack of portability isn’t an issue, a desktop is the best choice for you.
Where Will You Keep It?
Desktops can be kept at your office or in your home. For communal use at home, you might put it in a kitchen or a shared office. We tend to see multi-monitor setups in home office or work settings. Wherever you put it, you’ll want to make sure it’s a location where you have access to plenty of plug points. If you don’t, you may want to pick up a surge protector to give you more places to plug in and for some added protection.
PC Operating Systems: The Programs You Need
If you decide you want a desktop PC, you’ll have to consider which operating system you want to use. The operating system is the software that you engage with while using the computer. On an Apple computer, the operating system is macOS, while virtually any other computer will have Microsoft Windows. There are advantages and disadvantages to both operating systems. They’re outlined below.
When you use an Apple computer, you’re using macOS to manage your files, run your applications and more. If you’re a tried-and-trusted Apple user, you probably know that already, and are familiar with the user-friendly nature of their software both for PCs and mobile devices (its smartphone operating system is iOS). What you may not know is that Apple doesn’t license out its operating system to other companies, so you can only use this system if you buy an Apple computer.
Another thing to consider is that macOS is the only software with a streamlined App Store (Windows doesn’t have such a user-friendly experience, and Linux doesn’t have a store at all). Photo and video editors often opt for macOS, because it has a lot of native, or preinstalled, applications. macOS is also the only software to run Final Cut Pro, and some users have argued that Adobe Suite runs smoother on macOS.
Inspired by Apple’s operating system that was introduced in 1984, Microsoft went to work on developing its own system—and boy, did they succeed. Windows has been, and continues to be, the operating system used with the majority of PCs worldwide. And perhaps this has to do with the fact that it’s licensed to a panoply of computer manufacturers, including Apple. So, if you like Windows but prefer the build of an Apple computer, you’re in luck, because Windows will run on it.
A downside mentioned above is the App Store experience, as downloading well-known applications can sometimes mean users will have to search the Internet for them because they’re not centrally located in the store. Still, gamers and programmers are partial to Windows; you’ll seldom find them using macOS. You can’t game with macOS because the specs simply aren’t there for it, and programmers tend to like macOS because it’s Linux-based (more on that later). Perhaps a tradeoff for the deregulated App Store is Microsoft Office Suite, a productivity software with some programs exclusively offered through Windows, including Publisher and Access. Of course, that’s for you to decide.
A completely free software, Linux can be installed on virtually any computer. Programmers like it, though businesses don’t tend to use it because there’s no technical support. It’s a community -based and -driven software, so security updates aren’t regulated by one single company. This means that there is perhaps a larger margin for error as the updates come out. Since the root of macOS is Linux-based, programmers today might opt for macOS, if they’re willing to pay the premium for an Apple product.
Configuration Choices: All-In-One vs. Tower Desktop
When comparing an all-in-one and a tower desktop configuration, it really comes down to your probable need to customize the computer in the future. You can add components to a tower desktop that you can’t easily add to an all-in-one because the hardware is less accessible (the monitor and computer are housed in one place, making it a more complicated machine to take apart). With a tower, you can upgrade and replace your current hard drive, add storage, increase RAM, swap out the GPU. You can add a second or even a third hard drive or CD and Blu-ray drives. The best part is it will cost way less because it requires less labor.
Another note: if you’re creating a multi-monitor setup, consider that purchasing an all-in-one desktop would preclude you from purchasing a matching second monitor. So, if you want a uniform setup, a tower configuration could be a better option for you.
Processors: Intel vs. AMD
Intel and AMD processors are two main manufacturers buyers can choose between, and they are comparable in performance, power, and price. You can’t necessarily go wrong with either, but finding the best option for you depends on need and budget. The Intel Core i7 CPU is widely favored right now, with manufacturers including it on the Surface Studio 2 and the Lenovo Yoga A940 (two of six computers recommended in our desktop PC roundup for 2020.) AMD tends to be better for those on a budget who aren’t looking for the best possible performance. If price isn’t a big issue, you’ll have to take a closer look at the specs, such as clock speed and multithreading, to decide which processor is right for you.
All processors factor in clock speed; this is how fast the processor runs. Why does it matter how hard your processor works? In a gaming context, a processor that’s working too hard will glitch. If you’re designing in CAD, spinning an item in 3D will prove difficult. Using Excel, alphabetizing thousands of rows of data will be a slow and painful process. Core i3, i7 and i9 reflect the size of the processors. The higher the number, the lower the clock speed you’ll need, because the stronger processor won’t need to work as hard to accomplish its task.
Most modern processors support multithreading. One thread is a unit of execution, and multithreading is a technique that allows a processor to execute multiple tasks needed to complete a process at once. The AMD Ryzen 3700X is an 8-Core, 16-Thread processor means that it can handle tasks like gaming and streaming simultaneously. It’s a great workhorse processor for mixed-use cases. Higher-end processors like the Ryzen Threadripper 3990X have an incredible 64 cores and 128 threads, making them capable of doing impressive amounts of rendering with blazing fast speeds. They’re a great, albeit expensive, pick for intensive workflows.
Hardware: What Drives Desktop Capability
SSDs vs. HDDs
An HDD, or hard disk drive, is a data storage device that’s actually pretty outdated. It uses magnetism to store data on a rotating platter, and the faster the platter spins, the quicker the HDD performs. If you need lots of storage, an HDD could work, but highly capable desktops should be SSD-equipped. With an SSD—a solid-state drive—a computer boots, runs programs and transfers files more rapidly. SSDs are faster than HDDs because the former stores data on interconnected flash memory chips instead of platters, so it has a shorter latency and read and write time. It’s also lighter and less noisy.
A new computer will most likely be equipped with an SSD, but the question is whether you’ll want an HDD for extra storage. In the current market, large capacity SSDs are very expensive, so people are buying HDDs to increase their reserve. When looking at SSD sizes, you should consider 250 GB at the minimum. This will keep your operating system and essential software. As a gamer or graphic designer, you’ll want an HDD with one or two TB.
Desktops used the standard DDR3 memory system for years, but an up-to-date machine will have the DDR4 instead, especially with DDR5 around the corner. RAM is arguably one of the most important components of any desktop, as it’s responsible for storing PC information in the short run. Without it, user activity would slow and perhaps even stop. RAM is measured in gigabytes (GB), and a good desktop for browsing and basic productivity like spreadsheets should have a bare minimum of 8GB. Designers and gamers will want 16GB to 32GB of RAM. If you have particularly intensive tasks like 4K video rendering, you may need as much as 64GB to 128GB.
Ports and Connectivity
Desktops offer tons of connectivity options, unlike today’s laptops. When you compare the standard Apple iMac 21.5-inch 4K and the MacBook Pro 16-inch Retina, it’s easy to see the differences. The former has a 3.5mm headphone jack, an SDXC card slot, four USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, an Ethernet connector, and a Kensington lock slot. The latter has four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports and a headphone jack. VGA, HDMI, DVI, SDXC, and Thunderbolt 2 outputs are only supported using adapters sold separately.
What this means is that desktops give you more options to connect displays, audio devices, and other accessories. If you want to set up multiple monitors, you’ll usually have three or four ports to use, along with plenty of USB ports for mice, keyboards, touchpads, trackballs, or anything else you might want. The wired Ethernet port also tends to be fairly rare to find on laptops now, giving desktops another advantage in internet connectivity options and speed.
All-in-one desktops (Mac or Windows) are generally limited to Ethernet, USB-A, USB-C, a headphone jack, and a media card slot. Meanwhile, tower desktops allow for more customization. You can add graphics or connectivity cards to increase the number of ports.
Brands: A Myriad of Manufacturers
This manufacturer has a breadth of choices known less for standing out from the crowd and more for their budget-friendly price tags. It has many towers and all-in-one PCs to choose from, with the majority falling under $1,000. Acer’s computers generally won’t outperform those of other manufacturers (how can they with 4GB to 8GB of RAM?) but they have garnered some decent reviews from Lifewire, especially if you’re looking for productivity on a budget.
The Apple brand has pervaded modern society unlike any other technology corporation in the world, by creating phones, tablets, watches, and computers with sleek designs, brilliant displays and user-friendly interfaces. Their products often have much higher price tags than those of their competition, but they’re also built to last, so the splurge is perhaps more easily justified. That aside, if you like the all-in-one model and you’re looking for one company to streamline your life, Apple might be for you.
The main reason market experts consider Dell a top manufacturer is its selection of desktops and ability to customize them. Dell machines can be pricey, but that higher cost tends to give buyers a quality computer that fits their needs exactly. Whether it’s gaming on an Alienware machine or productivity on a Dell Inspiron workstation, you’re certain to find what you’re looking for with Dell.
A computer manufacturing powerhouse, Lenovo boasts a massive selection of products. They cover a broad spectrum of price and capability, and yet, there isn’t a range of quality, as this manufacturer has a proven track record of prioritizing performance across the board. This is perhaps why corporations opt to use Lenovo computers. Design and functionality are also major considerations for the makers, as demonstrated in machines like the Yoga A940, which includes a 4K IPS touch display and a stylus among other basic accessories for an all-in-one desktop.
Accessories: Keyboards, Mice, and More
Keyboards and mice are the basic accessories you’ll need for a desktop. Both usually come with the all-in-one computers, making that system (again) a less easily customized option. Tower desktops give consumers the flexibility to choose a keyboard and mouse that’s right for them from the get-go. Typists and gamers may opt for a mechanical keyboard for precision.
Extra monitors and drawing tablets are other accessories to consider as you devise your setup. It’s generally easier to connect bulky accessories to any desktop than it is to any laptop. Doing the former will allow you to spread out your setup and perhaps create a more comfortable workspace.
Conclusion: How to Pick the Best Desktop
No two computers are created equal, and with so many manufacturers and options created by those makers, it can be hard to know what the right buying decision is for you. The bottom line is that understanding your needs and measuring them against configuration options and the capabilities, price and overall quality of those options will hopefully send you in the right direction.