Looking for a desktop PC that will run two monitors
December 18, 2012 5:30 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend a desktop PC that will be durable, do basic surfing, and run two monitors? I'd like to avoid Dell. Cost is an issue, but it does not need to be cheap.

I've reviewed this recent question and this one, but I'm looking for something a bit different.

My husband's Dell Alienware tower just died. It was 2-3 years old. He needs a new desktop PC, and we'd like to avoid Dell (our last several Dells have had issues). He would like a computer that can run two large (24-inch or larger) monitors without the fan running constantly.

He does basic word-processing and surfing (on Chrome) and listens to music almost constantly. Very occasionally he streams a movie. He doesn't do photo editing or anything like that. He is not a gamer. Having two monitors is his most important criteria for a new computer. He would prefer a tower configuration to the kind that's wider than it is tall.

It doesn't have to be ultra-cheap, but we'd like to get good value for the money. We can spend up to $1500, but are hoping to spend more like $500.

Can you recommend a computer? We already have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc., so we're just looking for a tower.
posted by OrangeDisk to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to do two monitors, just download Ultramon.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:07 PM on December 18, 2012

Medieval Maven, thanks for the link. When we've run two monitors in the past though, we've had problems with the fan -- the fan has run all the time. This lead me to think it we needed a different kind of hardware. A more powerful fan or something like that.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:20 PM on December 18, 2012

3 years seems to be the typical lifespan for a desktop PC, and has been for quite some time now. Although I'm not a big fan of them either, Dell doesn't currently have any egregious bad quality issues that I'm aware of. Given the rapidly shrinking market for desktop PCs, Dell's actually one of your only choices, and I'm not sure that you're going to be better off by completely avoiding them. In a pinch, I'd probably choose Dell over HP.

Most desktop PCs run their fans constantly, regardless of the number of monitors being used.

Sometimes running two monitors with a PC that has "integrated" graphics hardware can stress out the GPU, and cause it to run hot. However, I'd honestly be somewhat surprised to hear if that was the case on any reasonably modern desktop.

That being said, web browsing is more of a processor-intensive task than most people want to admit that it is. If you keep lots of tabs open, and want your web browsing to be snappy, you'll definitely notice a difference in speed if you get a better PC.

That all being said, here's what I think you should look for:
- Intel Core i5-3___
- 6=8GB of RAM. More if possible.
- Just about any non-integrated graphics card. Aim for a card with 512-1GB of RAM.

I'm coming up short for specific recommendations. If you use Costco, this $900 generic-brand PC is an absolute beast for the price. This HP at Best Buy isn't bad either.

If you get a PC with Windows 8 on it, you'll probably want one with a touchscreen. (Go to a store and try out Windows 8, and you'll see what I mean. It's tough to describe with words, but Win8 is unintuitive and bewildering if you don't have a touchscreen) If there's a Microsoft Store in your area, you might want to stop by -- they had some pretty cool PCs on display the last time I was in one.

Apologies if that was disjointed, and shy of more specific recommendations.
posted by schmod at 8:29 PM on December 18, 2012

"The Chromebox supports up to two 30’’ monitors and is HD compatible."
posted by at at 9:59 PM on December 18, 2012

The Mac mini runs Windows, runs nearly silent, supports two displays, and is near the low end of your budget at $600 — cheaper if you get refurbished.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:23 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

When you say that your husband's current tower "died" - could you be more specific?

I mention this because one possibility would be to retain the box from the old PC while replacing any non-working components and upgrading others. For example if the constant fan noise was caused by a faulty power supply - which has now finally given up the ghost - then just replacing that could get the system back on its feet (this happened to me about 2 years ago with a Dell which I am still using).

Sorting all this out requires a reasonable level of technical confidence - but there are Youtube videos and other resources to guide you through the steps of diagnosing the problem, choosing replacement parts and swapping them out. If the PC is only 3 years old then there are not many technical advances since that point which will make any significant benefit to the way your husband is using it. And fixing the problem could save you quite a bit of money over buying a new machine.

Whilst some PCs might last as few as 3 years the modular nature of desktop systems (together with a slowing in the rate of technical innovation) should mean that you should be able to use them for considerably longer. One guideline is "it is better to upgrade your PC if the cost of doing so would be less than 50% of the cost of replacing it with a new one"
posted by rongorongo at 2:38 AM on December 19, 2012

I think most desktop tower type computers run their fans non-stop these days. If this is really noticeable to you (and you're not running a gaming PC with 9 fans in it altogether - one for the power supply, one for the processor, one for the video card, one for case ventilation and five for looking cool) the problem might be an issue with one or more of the fans.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:46 AM on December 19, 2012

If he really just surfs the net & listens to music - i.e. if he's not a gamer - then I 2nd the mac mini. For $800 I got an apple-refurbished quad core i7 (the server model), which was cheaper than any quad-core i7 PC I priced. It replaced a very old Athlon tower and boy do I not miss the fan noise.
posted by mr vino at 5:59 AM on December 19, 2012

Thanks for all the great suggestions.

When I say his current computer died, I mean that when we turn it on, we get the Dell logo, then a flashing cursor and nothing else. It doesn't fully start up, and we can't boot it in "safe mode" or using a back-up disk or anything like that. I am not very technical -- and I'm the more technical of the two of us. I wouldn't have a clue how to diagnose what's wrong.

The Chromebox, Mac mini (I would love to get this! I have a MacBook Air myself, and would love for him to change to a Mac) and the Costco computer (we do have a membership) all look like good options. Thanks also to Schmod for providing some baseline specs to look for.
posted by OrangeDisk at 10:10 AM on December 19, 2012

In your shoes I would get the parts for either the techreport econobox or the arstechnica budget box; both have system guides out for December. And then just slap that bad boy together.

Really not hard at all. The only part that's any harder than putting legos together is putting the heat sink on the cpu. And you can still get copies of Win7 if you'd prefer that to win8, and it'll be utterly free of crapware.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:49 AM on December 19, 2012

It sounds like the hard drive on your old PC crashed. If that's the case, it's not a terribly expensive repair (and not particularly difficult if you wanted to try to tackle it yourself -- $78 in parts, and you'd probably need to request a set of system restoration DVDs from Dell).

That said, there's another possible upside to the Mac Mini: If you buy AppleCare with it and have any problems, you can take it into any Apple Store for prompt service and repair. I give Apple a hard time a lot these days, but their customer service is completely fantastic. (I just looked at what Best Buy would charge for a hard drive replacement, and holy $%*)
posted by schmod at 12:02 PM on December 19, 2012

Oh, and if you buy a Mac Mini, make sure it has 8GB of RAM. The 4GB in Apple's stock configuration is really the bare minimum amount that you'd want in a PC today.

If you find it's running slow in a year or two, you can take it in and have that bumped up to the Mini's 16GB maximum. It'll cost you a lot less than the $300 that Apple is charging for the 16GB upgrade right now.

A really nice Mac Mini configuration would be the 2.3GHz Quad-Core i7, 8GB RAM, Fusion Drive, Keyboard/Mouse, and AppleCare. Regrettably, this brings you right up to around $1400, which really seems like an awful lot to pay for a Mac Mini.
posted by schmod at 12:10 PM on December 19, 2012

Stupid question, but if that machine is 2-3 years old, have you checked its warranty? Dell may fix it for free.

If it's out of warranty, take it to a local PC repair shop (not Best Buy) that doesn't charge much for diagnosis. It might be a dead motherboard, which isn't *that* expensive ($150) to fix, or it might be something something easier like bad RAM or a bad power supply.

The fan issue is fixable, maybe for free, or possibly by downgrading the video card to something fanless (AMD Radeon 6450 is $30-$40) that still supports playing HD video.

Don't buy the Chromebox. It runs a horrendously limited operating system that Google should (and likely will at some point) abandon. There is very little software for it. Get a Mac or PC instead.

Mac Minis are great little computers, but you'll have to add $100 to the price if you want to run Windows on it. Nothing wrong with OS X, so Windows is more or less optional.

The cheapest PC Costco carries is $500 and it will meet and exceed your needs. Even something in the $300 - $400 range will be perfectly fine for what you need.

If you do buy an inexpensive PC, you're going to want to remove what's called bloatware or crapware before using it. (Just run the first two apps on that list). I'd also recommend buying an extended warranty from either the manufacturer or SquareTrade.
posted by cnc at 12:14 PM on December 19, 2012

If you know anyone in your family in academia, they could get a license of Windows for $30 or so. It would also be a good way to start a computer (any computer) with fresh, clean, spyware/malware-free state.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:56 PM on December 19, 2012

Have you considered a custom building company? I just helped my uncle order a pc from CyberPower, and we got him everything he needed for just over $900. I've used them before and part of what is nice is that you get the part swapability and flexiblity of a diy build, but someone else does it for you. And a waranty and tech support. You can choose a good name brand power supply, and motherboard, and know that if something does die you can get a replacement at your local computer store if you need to. BTW, the first machine I bought from them lasted over 5 years on original parts and just last month was given a new power supply and is still cranking away.
posted by monopas at 5:14 PM on December 19, 2012

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