How to Buy a Desktop Computer

So you're in the market for a new computer? What’s it going to be? Mac or Windows? Blu-ray or regular DVD? Touch-screen monitor or standard mouse? With technology advancing so quickly and new features coming so fast, it’s becoming harder and harder to know what to buy. (See also: Why You Should Buy a Desktop Computer)

My advice to you is to treat this like you’d shop for a suit or a dress: find the one that fits your body as comfortable as you can and ignore the rest. Some of us need to do advanced things like video processing, while others just need a machine that runs an Internet Browser and Microsoft Word. It’s all about buying what’s right for you.

Desktop Features That matter

These are the features you want to pay the most attention to when picking out your system.


This is the brains behind the whole operation. The processor determines how fast you will get stuff done on your computer and, to a large extent, how long it will last until your next upgrade. Buying the fastest processor you can afford is always good advice here. If you want to save some money, find the fastest processor and take one step down from there. It’ll save you some money and you’ll still get great performance.


The more RAM you have, the less bogged down your system will get. But RAM is easy to upgrade, so don’t break the bank trying to fill up your computer with RAM. Instead, make sure the maximum amount of RAM it can be upgraded to is way up there (10+ GB of RAM). Then look for special deals on RAM and add as you go along.

Operating System 

Mac vs. Windows...the eternal question. What’s it going to be? Are you ready to make a switch or do you want to stick with what you’re used to? If you are a novice you may want to consider spending more to get a Mac. For all the power users out don’t need me to tell you what to do.

Hard Drive Capacity

Like RAM, hard drives are easy to buy separately and replace/add as you go along. But they're also relatively cheap to add when you're buying your desktop -- if you're not the type who likes to open up the machine and fiddle with things. Think about all the photos and videos you want to store and go ahead and get as much as you can handle budget-wise.

Desktop Features That Are Just Hype

Leave out these bells and whistles that aren't useful.

Touch Screens 

They make for great commercials, but the mouse is still the best way to navigate through the software programs on a computer. While we’re all getting used to using touchscreens on our cell phones and tablets, this is one thing you can do without. Especially if it costs more.


Some computer makers are trying to jump on the 3D hype bandwagon, but it’s so early on in the technology that there’s no sense jumping in when we don’t really know how it will all play out.

Special Features to Consider

Getting the right desktop for you is the most important consideration. Before you go shopping, think about what you're using it for, and how long you're expecting to keep the machine for.

Customer Support 

If you know how to update your BIOS and change the boot order of your devices on a computer, then this won’t be a feature you care about — you can probably handle most issues that you’ll encounter. For everyone else, you want to make sure you’re taken care of after you buy a computer. Issues will come up and they can be very frustrating. Knowing you can just pick up the phone and get help is kind of a big deal, so pay attention to the length and quality (read what people are saying) of the warranty, as well as the overall quality of the machine.


This is where the personalization comes into play. What are you going to use this computer for? If it’s editing large photos and videos, you’ll need certain software and lots of RAM. If you’re a gamer, you’re going to want a monster video card. Pay attention to what you’ll be using it for and buy accordingly. Don’t fall into the temptation that you need to have it all! You will be wasting your money — just buy according to your usage.

Best Time to Buy

I like to keep an eye on the machine I want and hold out for a few weeks until I find a coupon or it goes on sale. You can usually find great deals in July and August, right before the newest models hit the shelves, and in November during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

See our shopping calendar for more tips on the best time to buy anything and our other buying guides.

Recommended Desktops

Best PC: Build your own Dell ( Remember what I said about buying a computer that fits you and your needs? Dell is a world-class company with great customer support that allows you to build your own machine with a wide variety of components. I’ve built two machines with them and have absolutely no complaints. You can build a very good system for around $500.

Best Mac: iMac ($1,199). The whole machine is built into the monitor and no other desktop looks like it. Combine that with a fast processor, tons of RAM, and everything you need to pretty much run any program you’d like, and you can’t go wrong. It’s more expensive...but there are reasons for that.

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Guest's picture

I've been debating whether or not to replace my six year old desktop computer once it finally dies. I've already upgraded it to the max, so it does pretty much everything I need it to at this point. We do have a home laptop that we share which I have started using more often (it's faster plus it's on the first floor which is more convenient). Still, I like the idea of a desktop as well.

Guest's picture

That's about the age of my desktop as well. So far, all I've needed to do was upgrade the RAM (which I did almost immediately) and replace the hard drive. It's been a great machine that I've used for all SORTS of things over the years, including video, audio, and image editing, and building and maintaining websites. It's probably considered "archaic" because it's from 2005 (oh the horror), but most people really do have too much computer and continue to think they need more and more.

Your desktop computer sounds like it's been really good to you over the years, and hopefully you'll continue to take care of it.

Guest's picture

Buying a Mac is about the least frugal thing you can do.

Anyone who can follow simple directions and/or plug things into slots should just build their own computer. Thereafter, when certain parts need upgrading or motherboards need to be replaced, even more frugality is attained. As long as you have a big enough case for the parts you want inside, you're good. I just upgraded my desktop at home to the tune of about 200 bucks. Newegg or similiar sites are of great use.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Yeah but some people just want to buy a computer and have it work, not worry about doing anything under the hood you know? For those guys, I think Macs can be a good option.

Guest's picture

Wow, my jaw DROPPED when I saw you recommend a Dell. WHAT in the world???!! They are notoriously the WORST computers someone can buy, well-known among the computer-geek world. I used to work at a computer repair shop; we told our customers that if they didn't want to see us again, a Dell is the last thing they should buy. WOW. When my mother was looking at laptops, I told her to buy anything but a Dell. She didn't listen. The hard drive died on the second day she had it. She shipped it to Dell and waited a month to get it back.

Also, WHY would you say someone should buy a desktop that holds 10GB+ of RAM? Who in the world needs 10GB of RAM? That's overkill. 2GB is pretty basic these days, and 4GB is great. 8GB for a serious gamer or someone doing SERIOUS application processing. 10+? Never met anyone who needed that much.

As for hard drives, you didn't go into much detail there. You told people to think about pictures and get a big one, but I find that most people have hard drives that are too big for them. You get the middle-aged crowd who has mostly Office documents, and they really don't need more than 10-20GB (which you never find these days anyway... so the basic minimum 80-100GB is MORE than enough). You start to need bigger hard drives when you have a whole bunch of music and videos. Like... a LOT of music and videos.

I wouldn't recommend a Mac to a beginner either. PCs are more familiar, more likely to be compatible with software (and a lot of people need Microsoft Office), and I feel like a beginner would just run into a lot of headaches and questions when trying to use a Mac, that most of their associates wouldn't be able to answer because they're not familiar with Macs either.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

You obviously have had experiences with Dells. I have not. I've been very happy with them throughout the years.

I agree that no one needs 10GB or RAM today. But if you want to be frugal and not buy another machine for a LONG time, it's worth it to check and see how upgradeable your machine is going to be.

And at the rate we're going, I can see some software "recommending" some crazy RAM numbers in the coming years.

Guest's picture

First of all, you've got some solid information here; pretty informative, but some things I doubt people will need are a touch screen for a desktop computer. It's just not a huge thing to a lot of people. I do agree with Raina about Dell though, horrible computers and laptops. Awful service as well. Also the hard drive info section isn't that large, most people would probably love something around 500gb minimum to 1tb or even 2tb for storage alone, considering the size of video, music, picture and standard document files these days. In all fairness though, I think your recommendation for people to build their own PC is spot on, except for the Dell part. Go to or something and get things for a much cheaper price and do it yourself (or have a buddy/family member do it). 4gb of ram is very standard to see in most any PC these days with about a 500gb HDD. The CPU section is kind of lacking, but people should consider a Core i3 or i5 from Intel since they are fairly inexpensive (compared to the i7) and much better than current AMD processors.