The desktop buying guide

Finding the perfect PC can seem a little overwhelming with all the choice and features available. We’ve created this guide to get you started and to help you make the right decision.

You can pour over specs and features if that’s your thing (we explain what they all mean if you’re after something specific), but a great way to start narrowing things down is to think about what you want to use your new PC for.

Whether you want a new family computer, a business workstation or a performance PC for gaming and design, we’ll help you find a desktop PC that’s right for you.

If you’re still stuck, have some extra questions or just want to see them in action, call into one of our stores to try them out for yourself.

What’s important to you?

1.Gaming

2.Family

3.Business, education or everyday use

4.Design and creative

1.Gaming PCs

Gaming PCs are built purely with performance in mind. They all feature dedicated graphics cards, powerful processors and plenty of memory to make sure you get the best out of your games.

PC gamers tend not to replace computers as frequently as normal users. They usually upgrade and add hardware as technology develops to make sure they stay current. Not only is this much more cost-effective over the years, it makes sure you always experience the latest games at their very best.

As you’re likely to be keeping hold of a gaming PC for a good few years, it’s important to choose one with enough performance to keep you current for as long as possible between upgrades.

Things to consider when buying a gaming PC

Graphics card

A graphics card is a processor that deals only with visuals. You can tell the difference in performance by comparing memory size, number of cores and clock speed. A bigger number is typically better, and enables you to run newer and more demanding games at higher graphics settings. We list this info on our gaming PCs to help you find the right one.

You can easily upgrade or even add a second graphics card to your gaming PC, so don’t worry if your budget is preventing you from getting the exact graphics card you want.

Look out for the NVIDA GTX and AMD R9 range to experience today’s games as intended.

Processor

Unlike the graphics card, RAM and storage, the processor isn’t particularly easy to upgrade. While it can be done, you’ll have to match a very specific chipset and more than likely upgrade the power supply.

It’s advisable to choose a gaming PC with the most powerful processor you can find within your budget. Even the most demanding games don’t need vast amounts of power, but we’d recommend a quad-core processor with a clock speed of over 3 GHz to prevent it from restricting the graphics card.

Intel™ i5 and AMD FX processors are ideal, although look out for Intel™ i7 processors for top-end performance.

Memory (RAM)

RAM isn’t as important in gaming as it is in design or media editing, as running a game typically doesn’t use that much – anything over 8 GB is plenty. If you find yourself needing more for demanding tasks or the next generation of gaming, RAM is one of the quickest components to upgrade.

Gaming PCs feature plenty of space and ports for adding more, just make sure you match the specification and slot type with the existing RAM. This is as easy as opening the case and having a look at what’s already installed.

Expansion

Gaming PCs are usually quite spacious inside, which lets you easily customise and add components as you see fit. You can add almost anything you want, including performance storage such as an SSD, a Blu-ray drive or additional graphics card.

This allows you to create the perfect PC over a few years, and when the time comes to replace the whole thing, your upgraded components can easily be swapped over to your new machine.

Accessories

From mice and keyboards to gaming surfaces and controllers, there are lots of ways to personalise and expand your gaming set up. If you’re serious about gaming, a mechanical keyboard and gaming mouse give you much more precision and comfort.

Normal mice and keyboards are built specifically for typing or cost. Gaming accessories have been designed by gamers and dedicated gaming companies to let you game at your best. Once you try a gaming mouse or keyboard, you won’t settle for anything else.

Family :All-in-one PCs

All-in-ones are the ideal multimedia hub for the whole family. They are just as suited to entertainment as they are to school and college work. They combine the screen and base unit to save space, so can be used in even the cosiest home.

All-in-ones are available with either Windows or OS X operating systems. Apple iMacs are the only all-in-ones that feature OS X – they also come with powerful processors, beautiful LED screens and are built from premium materials.

There are powerful Windows-based all-in-ones too, so you can work and create on the same PC the rest of the family use for school work, games and web browsing. Look out for touchscreen all-in-ones for a fun and intuitive way to navigate your PC.

Things to consider when buying an all-in-one PC

Screen Type

All-in-ones are available with different screen sizes and types, ranging from a compact 21.5″ to a huge 29″. Smaller screens are great if space is at a premium, while the larger ones are ideal for streaming TV and playing games.

If you’re into films, look out for PCs with Full HD screens for media streaming that can rival your TV in terms of quality and detail.

Windows 8 is the first version of the popular operating system to be designed around touchscreen. While you can still navigate with a mouse and keyboard, touchscreen control is quicker, easier and much more enjoyable.

Dedicated graphics

If you love watching films or streaming catch up TV, dedicated graphics will improve your experience with more much detail and smoother playback.

You can’t add dedicated graphics to all-in-one PCs at a later date, so it’s worth considering if you or your family plan on using your PC as a media hub or as an additional screen when the mains TV is taken.

Storage

If the whole family is planning on using the computer, we recommend a large amount of onboard storage. A 1 TB hard drive offers plenty of room for every user to store their files, photos and documents. You should consider a 2 TB hard drive or bigger if you know everyone in the household likes downloading films and music.

Look out for solid-state hybrid drives (SSHD). These drives combine the capacity of a full-size hard drive with the performance of a solid-state drive (SSD) for faster booting and smoother all-round computing.

Processor

The processor powers your PC, and is primarily responsible for how fast it works. Typically the more expensive all-in-ones have faster processors, although lower-priced PCs are more than capable of everyday computing.

Intel® Core™ i3 and AMD A8 processors offer a good mix of performance, efficiency and price and are ideal for most families. Look for Intel® Core™ i5/i7 or AMD A10 processors for more speed.

Business, education or everyday use:Tower PCs

Tower PCs are the box that you plug your monitor, mouse and keyboard into. They are available in lots of different specifications, but to keep things simple, we’ve split them into two categories.

Business, education and everyday PCs are designed for daily computing – that might mean typing up essays, creating presentations or browsing the internet. If you need a simple workstation or are looking for your first family PC, they are a great-value way to work, play and stay connected.

Design and creative PCs are much more powerful and are capable of running specialist software for activities like photo editing, graphic design and music production. They feature powerful processors, more memory and other features tailored to high-performance computing.

Everyday Use

From typing up essays and researching projects to working through mountains of emails and spreadsheets, tower PCs are perfect for business, education and everyday computing.

Finding the right one is easy if you think about what you want to do with it. Browsing the web, office work and typing up essays don’t require a lot of processing power, but a faster PC will run smoothly and allow you to do more at once.

We have PCs ranging from great-value, simple workstations to more powerful setups that are ideal for running more demanding software such as databases and occasional photo editing.

Things to consider when buying a PC for business, education and everyday use

Processor

The processor powers your computer, and although everyday computing doesn’t require a great deal of performance, a quicker processor is worth considering if your budget allows.

Processors like the Intel® i3 and AMD A8 make your computer boot quicker, open software faster and allow you to do more at once, so are worth considering for regular users.

Memory (RAM)

When you ask your computer to do something, the request goes to the memory (or RAM), where the processor picks it up and makes it happen. More memory lets the processor take on more at once, so you can download, chat, browse, work and listen to music at the same time without worry.

6 GB is enough for everyday computing, but you should consider 8 GB or more if you find your current computer slows down a lot.

Storage

The hard drive is where you save your documents, software, media and information. 500 GB is plenty for general use, while a 1 TB hard drive (twice the capacity of a 500 GB drive) is ideal if you plan on saving films, music and photos.

Dedicated graphics

Dedicated graphics let your PC produce images, videos and games with much more detail. They’re essential on gaming PCs but can also benefit your family PC by greatly improving the quality of videos. If you ever use your PC for streaming films, TV on demand or playing the occasional game, dedicated graphics give you more detail and a smoother performance throughout all your daily computing.

Software:

If you’re using your PC for college, university or business, Microsoft Office is essential. From lifetime licences for students to yearly subscriptions for the whole family, there are different versions available to suit your needs.

Staying safe online is equally important, especially if you have children. We have a large choice of anti-virus and internet security software to keep your PC protected, your little ones safe online, and your files and personal data secure.

Monitors:

Whether you’re simply using your PC as a simple workstation or need true-to-life colour representation for design, a great monitor setup can drastically improve the way you work. We have monitors in a wide range of sizes, with each one capable of delivering Full HD images.

If you use your PC regularly, a dual-monitor setup is a great way to improve productivity. We recommend using two versions of the same monitor so that the image is exactly the same across both screens.

Refurbished towers:

Whether you’re looking for an everyday PC or something with more power, refurbished tower PCs are worth considering for their value and performance.

Refurbished PCs are available from all of our brands, including Lenovo and HP, and are available in a huge range of specifications.

They come with the same one-year guarantee as a brand new computer, so you can buy and use with confidence.

Design and creative

Graphic design, music production and photo editing software all require serious power to run at their best.

A PC tuned to deliver high-speed processing and instant multitasking lets you stretch your imagination and create something you can be proud of.

We recommend a Tower.

 

 

 

Intel Haswell-E processor (Core i7 5960X and 5820K)

The new X99 platform brings DDR4 and an eight-core processor to the desktop

Intel Haswell-E processor
With the launch of Haswell-E, Intel has introduced three new desktop processors and an updated chipset to support them, called X99. Although the new chips are based on a similar 2011-pin layout to the previous Ivy Bridge-E enthusiast processors, these processors are not backwards compatible with older generation motherboards. If you want one of these chips, you’ll need to buy a new motherboard as well.

The new flagship model is the Core i7 5960X, which has eight physical processor cores, capable of running 16 threads simultaneously. Its standard clock frequency is 3 GHz, which goes up to 3.5 GHz when Turbo Mode kicks in. Shared between its eight cores is 20MB of level 3 cache, and support for 40 PCI-Express lanes.

 

Having only 28 PCI-Express lanes in the 5820K will be a limitation if you’re considering a multiple GPU setup or perhaps PCI-Express storage. But arguably if you’re buying three graphics cards, then you can probably afford to splash out on a more expensive processor.

All three use Intel’s hyper-threading technology, so the Core i7 5960X shows up as a 16-core processor in Windows.

It’s of particular note that all three chips have a 140W TDP (Thermal Design Power), the highest thermal footprint of any desktop Intel processor to date. Processors in the Xeon E5 range, such as the formidable E5-2687W, are 10W higher.
No part of the Haswell-E processor is allocated to on-board graphics, so you’ll need a separate card just to turn on and test the chip, or when employed in a non-graphics-focused environment (such as a server). Similarly, the processors ship without heat sinks, so you’ll need to add a third-party cooler to your order.

The three new chips sit alongside Intel’s Devils Canyon processors, a refresh of the Socket 1150 Haswell architecture with slightly increased clock speeds, which were released earlier this year.

The fastest Devils Canyon processor is the Core i7 4790K, a quad-core processor with a standard clock speed of 4 GHz, which can hit 4.4 GHz in Turbo Mode. This is considerably higher than any of the Haswell-E processors and, depending on the software you use, it may have a bigger effect on how well a particular software application runs than the increased number of cores you get with a Haswell-E chip.

The X99 chipset and DDR 4 memory

Intel Haswell-E processor
With the new processors comes the new X99 chipset. Intel has christened the new socket LGA2011-v3 to differentiate it from previous generations. With X99, there’s been an overall bump to the standard specification, but also the introduction of some new technologies.

Intel now supports up to ten 6 Gb/sec native SATA ports, with RAID modes 0, 1, 5 and 10. Motherboard manufacturers can include up to 14 USB ports, six of which are USB 3, and they are directly connected to the chipset rather than by using a third-party controller.

Thunderbolt 2.0 is supported by the chipset as well, but only via add-on cards, since its inclusion adds a lot to the cost of the platform, so it makes sense for it to be optional.

As on Intel’s Z97 platform, two new storage types are supported – SATA Express and M.2, which hook up to the chipset’s PCI-Express lanes for faster SSD performance than you get from traditional SATA drives.

The biggest new addition with X99 is the use of 288-pin DDR4 memory, finally introducing a new memory standard to replace DDR3, which has been around for the best part of a decade. Speeds start at 2,133 MHz, but faster modules are available, right up to 3,000 MHz. As is usual with a new memory technology, latencies such as CAS and RAS have increased over DDR3, but overall memory bandwidth is still a lot higher, thanks to the faster speeds.

Memory can be arranged in a quad-channel setup, and will be sold in packs of two or four sticks, with support for 16 lanes in high-end motherboards. The Asus X99-Deluxe, which I was kindly loaned for my testing, can support eight DIMMs, four slots each side of the CPU, with the full quota of 10 SATA ports and 12 on-board USB ports, with a swish looking white cover over the back and lower sections.

 

Currently, the maximum amount of memory you can squeeze into an X99 motherboard is 64GB, limited by the availability of higher-capacity DDR4 DIMMs, but in the future 128GB and beyond should be possible.

At the time of writing there are no options for budget, cut-down X99 motherboards, which is expected for an enthusiast platform. The Asus X99 Pro I used for testing costs about £200 (around $300, or AUS$384), which is the rough approximation for most competitors too.

A few Micro-ATX boards are cropping up now, if you’re keen to build a smaller PC. But the majority of X99 motherboards are ATX models designed for larger cases.

Haswell-E or Xeon?

Intel’s Xeon processors, aimed at workstation and server use, have offered eight cores for a while now. Xeon processors are an expensive prospect though, since they include additional functions that even the Haswell-E chips don’t offer. Xeons are the only processors that can be used in multi-socket motherboards, with two or four chips used together. This requires additional circuitry, and is restricted to certain models of E5 or E7-series Xeons.

They also support ECC memory, unlike the Core i7 chips. The nature of electronic devices means memory errors can happen when a bit is accidentally flipped from a 0 to a 1. The chance is tiny, but real. ECC memory introduces checking to guarantee the integrity of data and ECC memory matters greatly in some mission-critical professional environments. When software is being designed where errors can have grave consequences, such as the design of jet engines, health care devices, or banking software, even the remotest chance of an error needs to be avoided. It matters a lot less in a gaming or media-focused desktop PCs.

PC build guide: recommended mid-range gaming PC

Pc Build Guide Mid Range Recommended Header

It’s amazing to look back at ads from the 80s and 90s and see what kind of PC hardware you could get for $2000. Technology marches on, PC parts become exponentially more powerful, and everything gets cheaper. Today you can build a high-performance budget gaming PC for less than $700. But we’d recommend most PC gamers spend a bit more to get a far more powerful, more future-proof machine. For about $1300, I think you can build an amazing gaming rig that will last at least four years without an upgrade. And I know just the parts that you should use.

This is PC Gamer’s guide to building the best mid-range PC money can buy. Really, this is the rig we’d recommend to the majority of PC gamers. It’s powerful and built to last, but not extravagant. The parts are reliable, high quality, and will get you close to the performance of a much more expensive rig. There are no compromises here, just smart choices.

With this rig, I expect you to be able to play most of today’s most demanding games on ultra settings, at 1080p and 60fps. You’ll probably be able to handle most of those games at 1440p, too. And three years from now, when games have even stiffer graphics requirements, this rig will still have the power to handle them on high or medium settings (especially with a bit of overclocking).

Update 10/2/2015: We’ve refreshed our build guide with a new motherboard, CPU and RAM with the release of Intel’s Skylake platform.

Build Week Banner Thin

Here are the parts I recommend for a great gaming build for anyone. And, naturally, you can tweak this build to suit your needs, and save a few bucks by ditching the DVD drive or buying a smaller HDD. Scroll down below the chart for the reasoning behind each part choice, and a few different case recommendations for sizes, styles, and prices.


Component type Recommended component Price
Processor Intel Core i5-6600k $260 (£215)
Motherboard Asus Z170 Pro Gaming $162 (£110)
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR4 2400 (8GB) $55
Graphics card MSI GTX 970 4G $335 (£270)
Power supply Corsair CX600M 600 watt 80 Plus Bronze $65 (£61)
Primary storage Samsung 850 EVO 250GB $98 (£74)
Secondary storage Western Digital Black 2TB WD2003FZEX $125 (£96)
CPU cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $35 (£25)
Disc drive Asus 24x DVD-RW $21 (£14)
Cases NZXT S340 (see below for more) $70 (£57)
$1226

Mid-range Pc - Intel Core I5 6600k

Processor: Intel Core i5-6600K

Price: $260 on Newegg (£215)

Ever since the Sandy Bridge Core i5-2500K in 2011, Intel’s i5 processor has been the perfect sweet spot for gaming. It’s reasonably priced, highly overclockable, and for gaming, not much different from the more expensive Core i7. Since most games are more GPU intensive than CPU intensive, an i5 processor is exactly the right amount of muscle you need.

An overclocked i5 can handily tackle some of gaming’s most demanding CPU tasks, like running the Dolphin GameCube/Wii emulator. It’s also a great all-around processor for normal PC usage. The new Skylake i5-6600K isn’t a major performance boost over its predecessor, but we recommend using Skylake if you’re building a new PC, as the new platform includes more PCIe lanes and support for much faster storage that will be important down the line.

Mid Range Pc Asus Z170 Pro Gaming

Motherboard: Asus Z170 Pro Gaming

Price: $162 on Newegg (£110)

Motherboards are a nightmare to shop for: there are so many, with such a broad range in prices, it’s difficult to identify the features that are important and how much you should be paying. You can easily spend $300 on a motherboard, but you don’t need to. The Asus Z170 Pro Gaming includes most of the important features of Asus’ high-end boards that matter for gaming, at a lower price. It’s the latest iteration of our favorite gaming motherboard.

At $160, the ASUS Z97-A is well-reviewed by buyers, offers plenty of overclocking potential, and has Asus’ typically powerful and easy-to-use UEFI BIOS. It includes an important M.2 port rated for PCIe x4 speed, as well as two PCIe x6 lanes for a dual-GPU setup. In another nice bit of future-proofing, it includes two USB 3.1 ports.

Mid Range Pc Crucial Ballistix Sport Ddr4

Memory: Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR4 2400 (8GB)

Price: $55 on Amazon

DDR4 prices are thankfully dropping quickly these days, and it won’t be long before those prices match DDR3. The Ballistix from Crucial are an easy choice: they’re fast, cheap, and low profile enough to sneak under a chunky air cooler.

According to my research into RAM speed ( here’s a great article on Anandtech), faster speeds and memory timings aren’t that important, especially for gaming. You’re not going to see much of a framerate difference as a result of RAM speeds. In fact, you probably won’t see any difference at all. RAM speed makes more of a difference in other PC tasks, but Anandtech’s bottom-line advice is pretty simple: more RAM is a better upgrade than faster RAM, and RAM faster than 1600 MHz makes a small but meaningful difference.

While you could make the jump up to 16GB and see a bit better performance in heavy duty applications like Adobe Premiere, for gaming, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Some recent testing has shown how little difference 4GB, 8GB and 16GB of RAM actually makes on gaming performance.

UK readers: This exact kit isn’t available in 8GB in the UK, but you can grab similar G.Skill Ripjaws V Series for for £53 on Amazon.co.uk.

Msi Gtx 970 Graphics Card

Graphics card: MSI GTX 970 4G

Price: $335 on Amazon (£270)

There’s still a lot of controversy around the GTX 970. Nvidia messed up and gave out incorrect information about the card, and it took several months for the divide between 3.5GB of VRAM and a slower 500MB to come to light. Despite the controversy, the MSI GTX 970 is still the best price/performance graphics card on the market. It’s fast, incredibly overclockable, and should handily deliver 1080p, 60 fps gaming for the next few years.

And there’s a reason why the memory issue didn’t show up in positive initial reviews of the card like ours: you have to go far out of your way, and run the card at resolutions/settings it’s not really capable of handling, to spot any issues with its memory management. If you’re still suspicious/confused about the 970’s performance, read Digital Foundry’s excellent breakdown of the controversy. It’s a great, informative read.

Now, why the MSI GTX 970 4G over other alternatives? Simply put, it’s a great card: quiet, very overclockable, and much cheaper than other 970 options.

I recommend the 970 over any other currently available card for price/performance, but if you’ve sworn off Nvidia, the Radeon R9 290X is the only close option. It’s much louder, and far more power-hungry, than the GTX 970, but you can get close to the same performance for the price.

Midrange Corsair Cx600m

Power Supply: Corsair CX600M 600 watt 80 Plus Bronze

Price: $65 on Newegg (£61)

How much power do you need for a gaming PC? Nvidia’s latest graphics cards are more power efficient than ever, but if you overclock your graphics card and CPU, you could easily be using 400 watts of power. A 600 watt power supply offers plenty of headroom for lost power (with a 80 Plus Bronze rating, a PSU is at least 82% efficient) and even a more power-hungry graphics card down the road.

I recommend Corsair’s power supplies for their reliability, and the CX600M model in particular because it’s modular. You can certainly find a cheaper power supply that offers as much juice, but modular power supplies are far nicer to build with. They leave you with fewer cables to deal with and let you plug in exactly what you need for your rig.

Midrange Samsung 850 Evo

Primary storage: Samsung 850 EVO 250GB

Price: $98 on Amazon (£74)

Now that it’s come down in price a bit, Samsung’s 850 EVO is a great buy for a fast, affordable SSD. On sequential R/W speeds it pushes the SATA standard to its limit, and on random R/W it puts up substantially better numbers than last year’s competition, the Crucial MX100 and Samsung 840 EVO. For $115, the 850 EVO is worth it.

If you know you’ll want more SSD space, you can upgrade to the 500GB model for $190.

Midrange Western Digital Black Hdd

Secondary storage: Western Digital Black 2TB WD2003FZEX

Price: $125 on Amazon (£96)

This is an optional addition to your primary SSD, but it’s one I expect most modern PC owners will want. Unless your PC is for games, and nothing but games, you’re probably going to want storage space for music, personal photos, movies, PC Gamer fan letter drafts, and all sorts of other files. You may also want to keep most games installed than you have room for on a 250GB SSD. Spinning disk HDDs still have a place in today’s PCs, since they’re so dang cheap.

The Western Digital Black is the HDD I’d recommend to anyone installing applications on the HDD. It’s considerably faster than a WD Green drive. While I wouldn’t recommend it for storing games where load times really matter (an MMO like Guild Wars 2 or a giant game like Battlefield), smaller, quick-loading indie games will be just as playable on a HDD as they are on an SSD. The speed of the Black drive gives you plenty of storage, still at a good price, without poor performance.

Budgetpc Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo

CPU cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

Price: $35 on Newegg (£25)

The Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is our recommendation for a budget CPU cooler, and it’s our recommendation for a mid-range CPU cooler, too. Why? It’s just that good. It’ll give you plenty of cooling for a heavy overclock, it’s extremely cheap, and it’s easy to install. It’s far better and cooling, and quieter, than a stock Intel cooler. It’s the easiest choice of any part on this list.

The cooler is also $35 on Amazon with Prime shipping, if you’d prefer to buy it there.

Midrange Asus Dvd Drive

Disc drive: Asus 24x DVD-RW

Price: $21 on Amazon (£14)

Do you need one? Do you want one? What the hell. This one costs $21, and it’s probably not going to break. You’re only going to put about three DVDs in it a year.

Intel’s New Core M CPU: Everything You Need to Know

macbook core m

Things are finally heating up for Intel’s cool-running processor, with Apple utilizing a 1.1 and 1.3GHz dual-core versions in its latest, and first fanless, MacBook. Intel company first announced its Core M CPU at Computex Taipei in June, providing few details but touting the platform’s ability to power a new generation of fanless tablets and 2-in-1 laptops. Manufacturers such as Lenovo and Dell have announced products based on Core M.

Intel Core M

The first CPU based on Intel’s next-generation, 14nm Broadwell architecture, Core M operates at a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of just 4.5 watts, which compares very favorably to the previous “Haswell” notebook CPUs, which have TDPs ranging from 11.5 watts for a low-end Core i5 or Celeron to 57 watts for a quad-core, Core i7. Having lower TDP means not only longer battery life, but less heat to dissipate. With Core M, the TDP is low enough that hardware vendors can use passive cooling methods instead of fans.

TDP from 1st Gen Core to Core M

Going fanless allows manufacturers to build thinner devices that make less noise. For example, the latest MacBook half an inch thick; the second-generation Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is just .38 inches thick, compared to its .46-inch, Core i5-powered predecessor. Where the original Helix’s keyboard dock had a hinge with dual fans built-in, the new Ultrabook Keyboard has not even one fan. Last year’s model lasted just 5 hours and 48 minutes when detached from its dock, but the Lenovo promises 8 hours of endurance from the Core M-powered Helix.