How to Shop for a Desktop Computer, From Cheap Towers to Gaming PCs

A boxy desktop PC may seem like a relic of the past. But a desktop can be a great option for anyone who works from home or plays games, or for families who need a shared computer, because desktops typically provide better value, last longer, and are easier to repair and upgrade than laptops or all-in-ones.get into my pc

Traditional desktop towers don’t come with a display, unlike all-in-one computers. In addition to buying the desktop, you need at least a monitor to go with your computer, and you might also need a keyboard, a mouse, and a webcam. Most prebuilt PCs come with bundled accessories, but you’re typically better off buying them separately.

A cheap desktop works well for browsing the web, editing documents and spreadsheets, and playing basic games like Minecraft. If you want to play popular games such as Apex Legends, Fortnite, or Valorant, you need to spend a bit more for a budget gaming desktop. And if you want to play the newest, fanciest-looking games at higher settings, resolutions, and refresh rates, you need a more expensive gaming PC. We’ll tell you what specs to look for depending on what you need.

We’re planning to test prebuilt desktop PCs in the coming months to find the best options. But many desktops—especially the cheap ones—perform similarly. Here are the specs that we recommend you pay attention to when you’re shopping.

What to look for in a desktop

A good desktop is largely defined by its specifications: the processor, how much memory it has, how much and what kind of storage it uses, and its graphics card (if it has one). Here’s what to look for.

  • Processor: Choose a 12th- or 13th-generation Intel Core i3, i5, i7, or i9 processor, or any AMD Ryzen 5000- or 7000-series processor. These CPUs have plenty of speed to handle everything from basic browsing to gaming to video editing. If you use apps such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom or play demanding games, stick with a Core i5 or i7 processor or a Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 processor. Avoid Celerons, Pentiums, and Athlons.
  • Memory: Aim for 16 GB, especially if you’re sharing the computer or using it for gaming or apps like Photoshop or Premiere. But 8 GB is good enough for general-purpose computing, especially in a desktop under $500.
  • Storage: A 256 GB solid-state drive (SSD) is a comfortable minimum, and you can get a larger drive if you need more room to store apps, media, and games. Avoid choosing a hard drive (HDD) as the desktop’s primary drive; it’s okay as a secondary drive to store photos and videos, but HDDs are too slow for everyday tasks.
  • Graphics card: If you want to play games or edit video, you need a dedicated graphics card (GPU) in your computer. It’s better to buy a desktop with a GPU rather than trying to add a graphics card later, because cheap desktops often come with cheap power supplies that don’t provide enough power for a graphics card.

For a budget gaming PC, look for an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060, an AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT, or a Radeon RX 6650 XT. (Don’t pay extra for the RTX 3060 Ti; it’s worth purchasing only when it’s at a price similar to that of the RTX 3060.) For a midrange gaming PC, look for an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 or RTX 4070. The AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT and 6800 XT are good options, too, but they don’t perform as well at ray tracing and tend to cost more in prebuilt systems.

Avoid the Radeon RX 5500 XT, RX 6400, and RX 6500 XT; the GeForce GTX 1650 and GTX 1660; and Intel’s Arc GPUs. The GeForce RTX 3050 is a decent option, but it can’t do VR, and you can get the more powerful RTX 3060 for the same price.

  • Size: A desktop computer’s physical size can affect what kind of work it’s good at and how upgradable it is. These are the most common sizes:
    • Mid-tower: Sometimes called “mini towers,” these PCs are actually pretty big. Mid-tower cases typically have room for multiple storage drives, a disc drive, and at least two full-height expansion cards (such as a graphics card, a video-capture card, or an internal Wi-Fi adapter). They’re also easy to upgrade.
    • Small form factor (SFF) PC: Similar in height to a mid-tower but half as wide, a small form factor PC is just as upgradable but is limited to “half-height” expansion cards. Many manufacturers also make smaller, custom SFF PCs.
    • Mini PC: Roughly the size of a paperback book, mini PCs are fast enough to use for most non-gaming tasks but are more expensive than other kinds of desktops. You can still upgrade many of their components, but you can’t install a graphics card or any other expansion card.

The best specs for a cheap desktop PC

If you need a desktop for simple web browsing, checking email, watching videos, and editing documents and spreadsheets—with the occasional video call—look for the following specs:

If you need the cheapest usable desktop: At a minimum, look for an Intel Core i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 processor, 8 GB of memory, and a 128 GB solid-state drive. You can find great options with these specs for around $500.

If you want a desktop that will last longer: A desktop with an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 processor, 16 GB of memory, and a 256 GB solid-state drive will feel faster—especially if you’re multitasking while on Zoom calls—and will last a few years longer. These specs typically cost a couple hundred dollars more.