Desktop digest: 13 things you need to know to buy the perfect desktop

Despite the laptop gaining strength as the PC du jour in recent times, the desktop still has a place in the home. Here are our top 25 things to consider before buying or building your own desktop.

Desktop header

Despite the laptop gaining strength as the PC du jour in recent times, the desktop still has a place in the home. If you thought there were a lot of choices in buying a laptop though, prepare to be bamboozled by what's on offer for the desktop. Luckily, we're here to help.

Do you need a desktop?

While we're fans of the desktop, sometimes you simply may not need one — even if your needs are fairly heavy, there's a good chance you can find a laptop these days that will accommodate your performance demands. Indeed, a lot of desktops these days are even based off laptop hardware, particularly the all-in-ones like Apple iMacs, HP TouchSmarts and Dell Ones.

You could potentially just buy an external mouse, keyboard and monitor, and hook them into a laptop to get the same effect as owning a desktop, while also gaining the benefit of portability should you need it.

In saying that, for unrivalled performance, customisation and a future upgrade path, you can't go past a desktop.

What type of PC user are you?

If you've decided to go with a desktop, you'll need to decide what you're going to do with it. If you're a gamer, you'll want the fastest your money can afford you. If you're a content creator, you might be looking beyond what's mentioned here into the workstation market, where even more power lies. If you don't play games at all and just want a PC for general use, almost any PC these days will service your needs, but you'll still not want to skimp on your peripherals.

Off the shelf or build your own?

If you're more comfortable with the idea of taking your PC back to the one place whenever something goes wrong, or being able to call a single place for support, then your best option is to buy a PC off the shelf. While it can limit your options in terms of what brands you buy and what components can be included, for peace of mind it's hard to beat.

There are two options here: either go for the big brand names you'll be familiar with (the likes of Dell, HP and Acer), or step into a local store that builds its own. The former are more likely to be around for a long time to come, while the latter are more likely to give you better face-to-face service, and perhaps throw in a few deals.

If you're after a custom build though where you can control the quality and parts to create your perfect PC, then you're heading down the DIY path. While it will give you greater flexibility, if something goes wrong with one of your parts, you'll have to do a bit of self-diagnosis and manage the warranties of each individual part. The upside of this is you'll be able to swap in replacement parts yourself quickly and not have to worry about voiding any warranties, as opposed to having to return the whole machine or wait for a technician to service it if you'd bought off the shelf. The technically savvy usually take this path, and can often save a bit of money doing so.

Net tops

Asus Eee Box
(Credit: Asus)

Net tops are desktops based off the desktop version of the Atom CPU found in netbooks. These are extremely low power, low performance devices, and in many circumstances are the closest we've come to a "kitchen PC" so far. We don't see much point in net tops unless you have a specific task in mind for them — you may as well get a netbook and enjoy the benefits of portability.


Apple iMac 27-inch
(Credit: Apple)

Exactly as the heading says! The all-in-one is personified by the iMac — a screen and computer all built into a single unit. Typically these use laptop parts to achieve their reasonably slim profiles compared to normal desktops; however, their contained nature is both a blessing and a curse — if something breaks inside the computer, you most likely can't just swap it out yourself without voiding the warranty — the whole machine will have to go in for a service.

Home theatre PC (HTPC)

Antec Remote Fusion Black
(Credit: Antec)

A specific sub class of the desktop case, the home theatre PC is designed purely to look like lounge room AV equipment. Typically horizontal rather than a tower case, it can often have an infrared receiver and remote bundled.

Small form factor (SFF)

Shuttle XS29
(Credit: Shuttle)

Covering a vast range of tiny PCs, the small form factor PC is broadly defined as anything smaller than mid tower, from the two- to three-litre business desktops, to the tiny Mac Mini and even down to systems based on Via's diminutive Pico and Mobile ITX form factors.

Small doesn't have to mean low power — plenty of these tiny systems, particularly from the likes of Shuttle can have plenty of grunt packed in. Apart from being space savers, small form factor PCs often live their life for a specific purpose — such as a media centre, Linux router or portable gaming machine.

Mid tower

Antec P183
(Credit: Antec)

Your standard PC case. Thankfully, we aren't restricted to the boring old beige cases of yore. Depending on the make, this size case usually has from three to six 3.5-inch drive bays (for hard drives and floppy drives), and three to six 5.25-inch drive bays (for optical drives such as DVD+-RW, and for some case accessories such as fan controllers).

Some bigger components such as high-end video cards may not fit in a mid tower case, and working space is limited, so you may be doing some contortions while building your PC. On the flip side, a mid-tower case will look just as at home on your desk as it will on the floor.

Full tower

Lian-Li PC X2000
(Credit: Lian-Li)

A towering hulk of a behemoth, the full tower case is reserved for the enthusiast. These will take the full length video cards, a larger amount of drives and components, and generally allow for greater working space. If you plan to be tinkering with the insides of your PC frequently, a full tower case will do much to make your life easier.

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