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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.

Selecting the core components

While some of these will be relevant to the DIY market only, this should give all desktop purchasers a brief overview into their system. Speccing out a desktop is perhaps a little more detailed than a laptop, as the choice of parts is significantly greater.

Selecting the CPU

Intel Core i7 and AMD Phenom II X4 processors
(Credit: AMD, Intel)

What type of CPU you choose will not only affect what sort of motherboard you buy, but in turn also the type of RAM and the heatsink required to fit onto it. CPUs aren't just referred to in terms of clock speed (GHz), but also the socket they plug into on the motherboard. Pay attention to this socket type — it will help you purchase a heatsink and motherboard later.

One thing to note is that on AMD's desktop CPUs, there are pins on the bottom that are used to plug into the motherboard socket, whereas on Intel's the pins are found on the socket itself, with only contacts found on the underside of the CPU.

Another consideration is that clock speed alone does not determine the performance of the CPU — it's entirely possible that a 2.4GHz CPU could outperform a 3GHz CPU for example, depending on the architecture used and how much cache it has.

A more useful measurement than GHz is how many instructions per clock a processor can perform. Unfortunately, Intel and AMD do their best to confuse the issue, and there are misleading model numbers and GHz up the wazoo with no real indication how competing chips perform against each other. Thankfully, there's plenty of reviews sites on the web to separate the wheat from the chaff, and in particular we like AnandTech's Bench for seeing how processors stack up against each other.

Which CPU is for me?

CPU Sockets
Socket 1156, 1366, 775 and AM3 (Credit: Asus)

At the high end of town is Intel's Core i7, a quad-core chip with no competitor as of yet. If you need ultimate performance, it's sitting right here, although you'll pay a price premium for it. It mounts in Socket 1366 for the 9xx series, or Socket 1156 for the 8xx series chips.

Servicing the mainstream is Intel's quad-core, Socket 1156-based Core i5. The dual-core, Socket 775-based Core 2 Duo and quad-core Core 2 Quad are still around in force, but we'd expect Core i5 to slowly squeeze these out as prices drop, and more Core i5 chips become available.

AMD still plays in this field with its Socket AM3-based dual-core Phenom II X2, triple-core Phenom II X3 and quad-core Phenom II X4 processors; however, performance-wise, these are competitors for the Core 2 series, not the Core i5.

At the low end of the market are Intel's Celeron and Pentium, and AMD's Athlon II, using Socket 775 and Socket AM3 respectively.

There are specialised CPUs too — Intel's Atom is a low powered CPU that's found in netbooks and net tops, and Via's CPUs often comes integrated on motherboards — both generally consume so little power and emit so little heat as a result that often no heatsink is required — though performance is heavily restricted, and so often PCs based on these processors are set to limited, specific tasks.

Highlighting the heatsink

Prolimatech Megahalem
(Credit: Prolimatech)

If you're buying off the shelf, you likely won't have to think about this part. The heatsink attaches to the CPU in order to dissipate heat, and more often than not has a fan attached. In most instances, one will be bundled with the CPU you buy; however, there are aftermarket heatsinks which provide considerably better performance than the stock. Depending on the size of your case (and the clearance around the socket on your motherboard), you can even get something as impressive as the Prolimatech Megahalem or Thermalright Ultra 120 Extreme, which take 120mm fans to help keep your CPU cool. Just make sure to pick one up that matches the socket of your motherboard/CPU, as most need to be fitted with a specific mounting mechanism.

Keep in mind that if you do buy a third-party heatsink, some don't come with extra thermal interface material to apply between the CPU and heatsink in order to aid heat transfer. In this case, you'll need to buy a tube of something like Arctic Silver to fill the gap.

Mastering the motherboard

Asus Rampage II Extreme
(Credit: Asus)

Once again likely to be a choice taken out of your hands if you buy off-the-shelf systems, the motherboard will be your key to future upgrade-ability. You'll need one with a socket that matches your CPU choice, and depending on what you intend to put in your machine, you'll need to make sure you get one with enough PCI-E slots (and of the right speeds), PCI slots, SATA, FireWire and USB ports to suit your needs.

One trap to look for — often motherboards use shared resources, meaning that you may not be able to use it to its full potential — for example, populating two PCI-E x16 slots with cards that make use of the full 16 lanes may drop your third PCI-E x4 slot to a speed of PCI-E x1, or you may not be able to populate all your RAM slots with as much RAM as you like. After you've narrowed down your choices, we would recommend downloading the manual from the manufacturer's website of your selected few to make sure you're aware of all the caveats.

Reaching for the RAM

Corsair Dominator DDR3
(Credit: Corsair)

If you buy an off-the-shelf system, the only RAM choice you'll likely have is capacity. For the average home user, 2GB RAM is still enough. The gamer will likely have between 4GB and 6GB in their system, and the content creator probably lives by the mandate "there's never enough".

If you're a DIY builder, RAM choice isn't just limited to capacity, and is usually a by-product of the kind of CPU and motherboard that's been decided on.

At the moment there are two types of RAM in the market — DDR2 and DDR3. Whichever one you buy will be affected by your CPU choice. If you go for a Core i7 or i5 chip, you'll need to get DDR3 — no choice here. While the AM3 and Core 2 chips will work with both DDR2 and DDR3, you'll have to get a motherboard that supports one or the other — the memory types are not interchangeable. While there are some hybrid motherboards that will take both DDR2 and DDR3, only one type of RAM can be operational at any one time.

While most systems perform at their best if you load up RAM in pairs due to the dual-channel controllers either in the chipset or included on the processor, if you've got a Core i7 CPU, you'll get the most performance buying RAM chips in threes due to its triple channel memory controller.

Also keep in mind there are different RAM speeds available, and beyond that there's even timings to consider which can affect your performance. There are some very high speed, low latency RAM chips floating around, but your motherboard will need to be able to support both the clock speed and the voltage required to run them.

Graphics choices

ATI Radeon HD 5850
(Credit: ATI)

The GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit, is what allows you to play today's 3D games, and plugs into the now ubiquitous PCI-E x16 slot. The more powerful the GPU, the higher you can crank the details in the games.

Despite the confusing amount of model numbers out there, there are three basic tiers for graphics card — entry level, mainstream and enthusiast.

While you used to have to buy the absolute best to get the most out of your games, you can now buy a mainstream card that will handle pretty much everything at high detail levels except the most demanding games, such as the punishing ArmA II, all for around AU$300.

Don't forget about outputs when buying a graphics card — some come with DVI ports, some HDMI, some DisplayPort — you'll need to align your choice with the monitor you intend to buy.

At the time of writing, ATI has the lead in terms of price/performance, with its Radeon HD 5xxx series cards leapfrogging over the GeForce GTX 2xx series from Nvidia. Performance can shift from game to game, but we recommend the excellent Tech Report for graphics cards and comparisons to help you make your choice.

Analysing the audio

Asus Xonar HDAV 1.3 Deluxe
(Credit: Asus)

For most people, the audio included on their motherboard is good enough, and if you're buying a system off the shelf, this is what you'll likely get unless you go with something like Alienware. On-board audio usually supports 5.1 sound, and if you get the right motherboard it may even have optical audio out.

Quite often though, on-board audio is not properly shielded and can result in crosstalk from the motherboard — the manifestation of which can be anything from odd buzzing noises when moving scrollbars, to little audible ticks and clicks whenever the optical drive is reading. If you're affected by this, prefer higher quality audio or want a specific audio jack, you should look into a discrete sound card.

While Creative definitely isn't the juggernaut it used to be in the 90s, the Singaporean company's X-Fi discrete sound cards are still high quality products (although a warning — the drivers are renowned for quality issues). Also in the discrete sound market is Asus with its Xonar series of cards (with everything from a standard sound card, to specific cards that target the home theatre and headphone user), and Auzentech, which provides both its own cards and X-Fi based products.

Mechanical or solid state hard drive?

Western Digital Velociraptor
(Credit: Western Digital)

Mechanical hard drive: magnetic storage is cheap — a 3.5-inch, 1TB hard drive can be found these days from AU$99.

Apart from capacity, there are a few other things to consider when buying a hard drive — do you want a 5400rpm drive, or a 7200rpm drive? The former will run cooler, use less power and likely live longer, while the latter will deliver higher data rates and faster application and game loading times.

If you're the type that just responded with "fssh, give me speed!", you might be into Western Digital's Velociraptor, a 10,000rpm 2.5-inch hard drive mounted into a 3.5-inch caddy that provides some impressive throughput. Not quite as impressive as solid state drives though...

Solid state drives: While they are extremely expensive in the dollars per gigabyte area compared to mechanical hard drives, solid state drives can provide significantly increased read and write speeds, with next to zero milliseconds of latency. There are a few pitfalls still involved with the technology (generally, you get what you pay for — AnandTech has a brilliant write up here, here and here outlining the current issues), and it's still definitely an area in development, but an SSD represents one of the bigger performance boosts you can introduce to your system.

If you're looking at buying a solid state drive now, we recommend OCZ's Vertex series, and Intel's X25-M G2 series.

As prices slowly fall, we'd suspect by mid-2010 the common set-up would be to use a smaller capacity, but a faster speed solid state drive for your operating system, applications and installed games; whereas a larger capacity but slower mechanical hard drive would be used for mass storage of movies, TV shows, pictures and music.

Don't skimp on power

Corsair TX-750
(Credit: Corsair)

The power supply (PSU) is one of the most important parts of your PC build. If you go out and buy an AU$50 power supply, you're inviting stability and reliability problems, especially if you've got a lot of components loaded up on it.

While this is another option that's typically taken out of the hands of the off-the-shelf buyer, for the DIY person you could easily spend up to AU$200 to get a decent supply. We're fans of Corsair's HX or TX series — quiet and proven performers that have a five-year warranty.

No idea what size PSU you need? Try Corsair's configurator.

Measuring up the monitor

Dell UltraSharp U2410
(Credit: Dell)

Monitors these days are cheap — 22 inches is the sweet spot, and this will set you back around AU$250-300, giving you a resolution of 1680x1050.

Most 22-inch monitors are TN-based — this refers to Twisted Nematic, which is a term used to describe how the crystals in an LCD react when a charge is put through them. These monitors tend to have not so great viewing angles, sacrifice a little on colour, but have decent response times, which helps to minimise blur when gaming or watching movies.

If you can spare the extra cash, we'd highly recommend the IPS-based (In-plane Switching, which tends to have great viewing angles and colours) Dell 2209WA.

For our money, we'd look into the 24-inch space, where the 1920x1200 resolution will easily accommodate full HD video playback, and supports several different video inputs. Here we'd recommend checking out the Dell U2410, which for price/performance is a hard monitor to beat.

Be aware when purchasing a monitor of the trap that is dynamic contrast ratio (DCR). DCR means that the screen is intelligent enough to brighten or darken itself depending on what's shown on screen, in theory providing deeper blacks and brighter whites. In practice, you get varying degrees of success, and the effect is rarely subtle, with the brightness shift so noticeable you'll be itching to turn it off in no time. We'd advise ignoring the ludicrous contrast ratios like 200,000:1 that seem to be quoted, and look for a spec called the typical contrast ratio — which more often than not does not exceed 1000:1. This is something that will likely not change until OLED becomes common place.

Sassing the speakers

Logitech Z5500
(Credit: Logitech)

Some PCs come with speakers built in — but with the exception of Apple's iMacs, the speakers found in all-in-ones, or bundled with off-the-shelf systems tend to be nothing short of awful. You'll want a dedicated set.

There are generally three configurations you'll find in the PC speaker market — 2.1 (stereo speakers and a subwoofer), 5.1 (five satellite speakers and a subwoofer) and 7.1 (seven satellite speakers with a subwoofer). If all you ever do is listen to music, then a 2.1 set is likely all you'll need.

For gaming and movies, you can never underestimate the impact of a 5.1 set of speakers. The king of the hill here is Logitech's Z5500 speakers, which have reigned supreme for quite some time — but definitely come with a price premium.

Generally 7.1 sound is reserved for the movie buffs. It adds an extra two channels for the rear, for smoother transitions in positional sound. Unless you've got content that supports 7.1 sound, we'd suggest most will be happy with 5.1.

Honour thy keyboard and mouse

Microsoft SideWinder X8
(Credit: Microsoft)

The tendency for most is to simply accept the keyboard and mouse that they're given when buying an off-the-shelf system, or to cheap out and simply buy whatever costs the least. Considering you'll be using both devices to access your PC day in, day out, you owe it to yourself to buy a good quality keyboard and mouse set.

We'd recommend actually trying a keyboard before you buy something at your local Officeworks (as everyone prefers a different typing feel). On the mouse side, we're fans of the Microsoft Explorer for day-to-day use.

If you're a gamer though (and right handed) you'll want to check out either the Logitech G500, Logitech G9 or Microsoft SideWinder X8. Lefties may want to check out Steel Series' Xai or Kinzu, or Razer's Lachesis.

Select your operating system

Windows 7 Professional
(Credit: Microsoft)

If you want to be able to use 4GB RAM or more, you'll need a 64-bit operating system. Windows 7 corrects most of the horrors Vista inflicted, and we'd highly recommend it for the Windows users out there.

Windows Home Premium is what most people will be saddled with, and it's not a bad thing — however, this operating system can't join a domain, so if you're buying a desktop for your business instead of home, you might want to look into Windows 7 Professional instead. Windows Home Premium also doesn't come with Windows XP mode — a virtual machine that runs a Windows XP installation, just in case you have any compatibility problems.

Unless you're going to use Windows with multiple languages, or desperately need the drive encryption offered by BitLocker, by and large we can't recommend the Ultimate edition — there are a few other things that generally target corporate users here, but if you want a bit more information on the different editions of Windows 7, there's a comparison table here.

On the Mac side, you pretty much have to take what you're given, but thankfully Snow Leopard is quite good indeed. As for the Linux crowd — there's many a distribution out there, and we're quite sure everyone has their favourite. Still, if you're new to the whole Linux thing, we'd give Ubuntu a shot.