How to buy a desktop computer

Desktops no longer make up the bulk of new PC purchases, but many people still like the idea of a fixed system. Here's some advice on finding the right system.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
6 min read

HP's all-in-one Curved Envy 34 is great for a home office or as a family PC.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Desktop PCs are not dead. Well, not dead dead, anyway.

Sure, these days phones and tablets have replaced PCs for a lot of us when it comes to getting day-to-day stuff done. Then, when more power or a bigger screen is needed, you probably turn to a laptop, which can even pull double duty as a desktop, hooking up to a monitor, mouse and keyboard when needed.

Nevertheless, there are still good reasons to go with an actual desktop over a laptop. And by "desktop," I don't necessarily mean a big tower at your feet with cables streaming from it. There are still towers -- big and small -- but the term also includes unique gaming systems, all-in-ones, mini PCs and stick computers. If you're not quite sure what those are or why you'd want one style over the others (or instead of a laptop), keep reading.

If, however, you already know the type of desktop you're looking for and just want some buying suggestions, here are our top picks in each category. Or you can jump to CNET's full list of best desktop PCs. (Note that, although the PC makers may no longer sell the exact configurations we reviewed, comparable configurations are available.)

Falcon Northwest Tiki


Falcon Northwest Tiki is powerful enough to support VR gaming.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Tiki is one of the smallest most powerful gaming desktops you can buy. It's designed for gaming, but it could just as easily be a workstation for web or graphic design or any other demanding tasks.

Dell XPS Special Edition


Need a machine capable of supporting VR? Try the Dell XPS 8920 Special Edition.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Want room to grow? Go with a full-size tower like the XPS SE. Dell makes less expensive towers, but this starts out powerful enough for VR games, but has room inside and out to beef up on components.

HP Curved Envy AIO 34

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a computer, personal home theater and gaming system for one. HP made a beautiful PC to cover all aspects of your computing life.

Apple iMac with 4K Retina display

Sarah Tew/CNET

A great family computer built around MacOS. It doesn't have the latest components, but if you're looking for a small multiuser system with a gorgeous screen, this is a good place to start.

Apple Mac Mini

Sarah Tew / CNET

In tech years it's stupid old, but if you want to use MacOS, this is the smallest -- and cheapest -- way to get it. Despite its age, its components won't let you down for basic home office tasks and media consumption.

Endless Mission One

Sarah Tew/CNET

This pretty little box running on a custom Linux-based operating system is less than $300 and comes loaded with tons of software. Perfect if you're just looking for something small, simple and cheap for basics.

Intel Compute Stick (2016)

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are plenty of mini PCs out there running on Windows 10, but this is just a little larger than an old thumb drive. The Compute Stick lets you turn any HDMI-equipped TV or monitor into an all-in-on PC. Add a wireless keyboard and mouse and you're set to get all the basics done.

Why would I want a desktop?

Again, while most of the market has flipped to laptops, there are a few very good reasons to consider a desktop instead. For example, they're great family PCs, since sneaking off to a bedroom with an entire desktop is unlikely to happen. Similarly, you can set up a space that's just for work and free of distractions, allowing you to disconnect when you're day is done.

Also, connected to a large monitor or TV, a desktop can double as a media center for storage and playback of your favorite movies, music and pictures. And while laptops have certainly gotten powerful enough to play even the most demanding games, a desktop lets you swap out components and upgrade as new games inevitably require new hardware.

What kind of desktop should I buy?

Since each desktop style has its own set of pros and cons, start by considering what you want to do, where you plan to do it and how much you want to spend. Buy the most desktop you can afford, but one that has all the features you need. For example: a mostly sealed system like an all-in-one, offers more convenience, but less flexibility if you want to change the CPU or graphics card down the line.


You might think they're just for gamers or graphics pros these days, but there are excellent reasons to buy a tower, not the least of which is their price-to-performance ratio. Whenever you miniaturize tech, costs go up, so getting top performance in a small PC -- laptop or desktop -- increases the price.

With a tower, you can get a lot more computer for your money with fewer performance bottlenecks. On top of that, towers can have ample room for expansion both inside and out. And because you can typically open them up easily, you can do upgrades and simple repairs yourself.

A tower does take up more space than other desktop options though, and that potentially limits where you can use it in your home or office. Plus, unless you've already got them, you'll have to add on the cost of a monitor, keyboard and mouse.


An all-in-one is basically a large monitor with the actual computer built into the back or base. They typically use the same components you'd find in a laptop and, as such, don't have the performance capabilities and/or the expansion opportunities of a tower.

Because they're all one piece, setup usually requires little more than plugging it in and connecting a keyboard and mouse. The minimal setup keeps your desk clutter-free and makes them much easier to move from room to room compared to a tower. However, should something go wrong with the display, you lose your entire computer.

Mini and stick PCs

Like all-in-ones, mini PCs use mobile components to keep them small. So small actually that you can hide one behind a monitor or tuck one into an entertainment center to use as a media server connected to a TV. Stick PCs take this a step further, shrinking an entire computer into something that's just larger than old-school thumb drive. There's an HDMI video output at one end letting you plug it directly into a monitor or TV.

While you can find some small powerful desktops, mini PCs are typically mainstream systems made for day-to-day tasks, web surfing and media consumption. You'll find plenty of ports to connect peripherals to, but internal expansion is minimal if available at all. Stick PCs are even less powerful, but still fine for email, social media and movies.

One advantage they both share is portability. You could, for example, pack a stick PC to take with you on vacation without a second thought. Or you could have an office setup built around a mini PC that you could simply disconnect and move to your living room for a home theater experience.


The Asus Chromebit is a stick PC running on Google's Chrome OS.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Should I buy a Mac or Windows PC? What about Google's Chrome OS?

For the most part this is a matter of preference, but there are definitely things to consider before you decide which way to go. Because Apple controls both the hardware and software for its desktops, you get a much more stable overall experience and many prefer the user-friendly MacOS layout and controls. That said, Apple hasn't been updating its desktops very often, which means in most cases you're buying hardware that's years old.

Windows is available on huge variety of desktops from a number of vendors, so it's much easier to find a computer that meets your feature and budget needs. Windows also has a large available software library, especially when it comes to free software and games.

Google's web-based Chrome OS is a lightweight, but limited operating system that relies heavily on having an internet connection. If you just need an inexpensive desktop for using web-based tools, a Chrome system is worth investigating (we call those Chromeboxes and Chromebits, while Chrome OS laptops are called Chromebooks). Those who need to install software like Microsoft Office or Apple iTunes will want to steer clear, though.

Where can I find the latest desktop reviews?

You can find all the newest desktop news and reviews right here on CNET. You can also jump right to our latest top desktop reviews for 2017.

Watch this: How (and why) to buy a desktop in 2018