Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?
December 27, 2014 8:52 AM   Subscribe

In the market for a new desktop - where do I look online for solid, unbiased advice on what sort I should be thinking about getting?

We have a very old desktop that I bought following a review in a computer magazine. That was in the days when XP was literally the latest thing and the machine is now a bit glitchy and slow, although still functional. It was / is ... OK (although taking it to be repaired not long after purchase the tech guy said he'd taken the case off and been confronted with a spider's web of melted glue strings, holding things in place). It did (somewhat unreasonably, I know) put me off relying on magazine reviews - the tech guy thought that because the mag review was very positive, the machines were being thrown together to meet overwhelming demand. And it has lasted pretty well despite the sticky spaghetti.

My question is this. Assuming I now want to replace it with a new desktop (no call for / interest in a laptop), and assuming my basic knowledge of computers is OK for a layperson (and I am happy to work up a further understanding if needs be), where do I go on the web for decent, reliable advice on getting a new computer? Where would you advise someone to look for the best and most accurate reviews (in your view) of systems, technical specifications, futureproofing, etc?

If it matters, the machine would be used for gaming (I like a good crisp picture but I'm not into megaFPS-y things), music (possibly including creating, producing and uploading material), graphic design) and interwebbing; again, if it helps in terms of the sort of sites I should be looking at, the budget would not exceed £1000 / $1500, but obviously I would prefer it to be less.

I know there are computer magazine websites and other fora out there - I just don't know which ones I should rely on, and am hoping you can offer some advice and guidance. Bonus points if you can recommend your tried and tested actual manufacturers or builders in /shipping to the UK but it's really all about the info at this stage.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, these days you won't be sinking a ton of money into your chosen machine.

As long as the specs meet your needs for gaming, I'd make a decision based on price and the ease of doing business with the vendor.

So figure out the specs you need, then start figuring out what computers fit into that window.

Then look at reviews. I like Amazon for that because they have thousands.

I get more time out a computer than most people and this method has served me well.

I have a friend who works at Dell, I've had a few Dell computers and they've all been great. We bought a shitty Toshiba for Husbunny to hack around the web on and it's been fantastic too.

Seriously, you don't need a Ph.D. in computing. It's like wine, lots and lots of good choices at all price ranges.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:57 AM on December 27, 2014

Find out if your library subscribes to the American magazine Consumer Reports and if so, check their ratings.
posted by brujita at 10:29 AM on December 27, 2014

Lifehacker had a roundup of PC builders just a few weeks ago. $1500 is really on the high end, you can get away for less these days.
posted by nostrada at 10:53 AM on December 27, 2014

Best answer: To be honest, £1000 these days will buy you a pretty amazing desktop PC. My budget for something that would handle even fairly demanding game graphics wouldn't go much over £500. But like you, I'm not too bothered about really pushing the limits in terms of resolution and frame rate.

I've often bought from ebuyer. You can select a PC using a mix of criteria (e.g. gaming PC, with addtional criteria such as graphics card, storage - SSD+HD or just HD, etc.) and the site will show you what they have that matches what you want. They're a well-established PC and PC parts vendor and their service is generally excellent.

Choosing just the right set of components is much less important that it used to be. For gaming, look for a graphics card in the £150 to £200 range with the right outputs, probably an Nvidia, and you're sorted. Go for 8Gb of RAM, or 16 if you're feeling flush. Pretty much anything you buy now is going to be ten times better than your old XP clunker.
posted by pipeski at 11:13 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here is Amazon's take on desktops:


Newegg's desktop buying guide only deals with Asus computers but might give you some ideas:

posted by lungtaworld at 11:56 AM on December 27, 2014

Best answer: The thing about buying a PC is the specs will be listed. You will know what's in it so you don't need to shop by brand name or model number.

Processor or CPU: This is the brain of the computer. The faster, the better. You can't go only on processor speed because a 3.0 ghz quad core processor will bottleneck less and feel faster than a 3.2 ghz (single core) processor. Top of the line Intel is i7. An i5 is also very fast. An i3 isn't bad. AMD processors are not as simply categorized, but you can easily look them up. You basically want to avoid really old processors and the more cores, the better.

RAM: This is how much work your computer can handle at any given time. An analogy is that your computer needs a table workspace to do all its computing on, and the more RAM you have, a bigger table your computer has to work. 4GB used to be standard and can still keep up with basic use, but nowadays, I wouldn't buy a new PC with less than 8GB. This is an easy thing to upgrade yourself, but get at least 8GB out the box now. There are different kinds of RAM, but it probably doesn't matter that much. Often times, people feel their computer is slow not because of the processor, but they just don't have enough RAM and the computer can't multitask.

Hard drive: We used to just want tons of space. 1TB hard drives are common now and space isn't an issue at all. But a solid state drive can make your computer feel a lot faster because it will access your data more quickly. Solid state drives (SSDs) cost more than hard disk drives (HDDs) and don't tend to come with the same huge storage capacity, so sometimes people use the SSD for their C: drive where the operating system goes and then put all their movies, music, photos, etc. on a media drive. If you can get a computer with both a SSD and a HDD, that will probably be ideal for the average user. SSDs are basically flash memory, where HDD's use a spinning disk to read data -- spinning parts just work more slowly and fail sooner.

Graphics: This depends if you're a gamer.

Wireless: Make sure wireless cards are built in to avoid annoyance with external wireless dongles.

Ports: Get a computer that has at least a couple front-facing USB ports on the case and preferably a slot of SD cards. USB 3.0 is even better.

OS: I personally recommend installing Windows 7. I am not a fan of Windows 8 at all, and sales shows I am not alone!

Given all this, you may want to consider building your own desktop. It sounds harder than it is. You get the most bang for your buck AND going forward, your machine will last a lot longer. Having the knowledge of assembling your own computer means you can upgrade on a part-by-part basis and fix any failing hardware on your own without buying a whole new machine. NewEgg has a really easy tutorial here that I used for my first build. (Looks like NewEgg just did an update that's more in depth starting here.) With a custom build, you will get to choose the exact specs for your machine and spend the money where you want to. At $1500, you could build a very, very high end machine. I'd say with half of that amount, you can custom build a super fast, super future-ready PC that will serve you for years to come.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:16 PM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you don't want to think about this at all and are willing to spend $1k+, just go buy a midrange refurbished iMac from the refurb section of the Apple Store site. They have decent everything. Make sure to get a model with a fusion drive.

I know a lot about computers, but I love my iMac. 7 years later it's still fast, and plays stuff like bioshock fine. It's still getting updated to the latest versions of the OS too, and will likely see another major update. It's built like a tank, quiet, includes a great screen, great support, well reviewed. I've built my own desktops, but I recommend iMacs all the time.
posted by emptythought at 1:50 PM on December 27, 2014

If you're planning to use the system for gaming, do keep in mind that the selection of games available for the Mac is significantly less than for PC. It's getting better, but it's still nowhere near parity, so unless you want to purchase a Windows license and deal with a boot camp/parallels setup to run Windows on your Mac, or you're willing to stick with purely Mac-compatible titles, I'd stick with a Windows PC.

If you do get a Mac, make sure it has discrete graphics. Intel integrated graphics isn't good enough for a satisfying gaming experience generally. I would not characterize the purchase as "something you don't have to think about".
posted by Aleyn at 8:32 PM on December 27, 2014

Best answer: You mentioned that you might use the system for music and graphic design?

Not so long ago, Mac was almost a prerequisite for music - but that's not the case anymore. The amount of Mac-only audio software has been shrinking rapidly.

You say you aren't interested in FPS gaming, but I'd suggest that you might wish to consider a graphics adapter that will support multiple high-resolution screens. I've heard of people going with 4K displays and loving it, but I have no personal experience there. But my point is that you may want to consider (and budget for) multiple displays and a beefier graphics card to drive them. Not for gaming - but for almost any music and graphics kind of work, more screen real-estate == better.

Also re displays and music: some of the newer music software will support touch-screen technology on Windows (FL Studio, for example). So you may want to consider a touch screen.

If you don't have them already, you may want to budget for some nice studio monitors/speakers and/or an audio interface (basically a higher-quality version of the standard microphone input on most machines).

I hope this helps a little. I concur with the notion of using a combo of SSD storage with slower disk-based storage, and going for multiple processor cores - a quad core i7 will probably keep you happy for many years into the future.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:41 AM on December 28, 2014

Best answer: This thread is a few days old, but I thought I'd chime in. You might want to take a look at the Build a PC subreddit to get an idea of what components folks expect from a $1.5k gaming machine, even if you're not assembling the computer yourself (or taking the parts to a store like Fry's, which will assemble it for you and install the OS for $50). For gaming, you'll actually probably want to go with an i5 instead of an i7, for instance, since games don't take advantage of hyperthreading. You can use the money you save to buy a better graphics card or a bigger SSD for games with long load times.

As an example, I built this computer back in September for ~$1.5k and it does a great job handling the latest games. You probably wouldn't need two monitors or a gaming mouse either, so again, you could spend more on the all-important GPU.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 3:58 PM on December 31, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you who have taken time to answer - I've got a lot more specific assistance and guidance than I expected, which is very welcome. I'm working through all the suggestions and info and hope to be in a position to move forward with a purchase fairly soon.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 2:20 PM on January 5, 2015

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