When buying a new computer, it’s easy to become confused by the absolute volume of technical decisions that you’ll have to make. You might wonder how much RAM you’ll need, for instance, which CPU or which graphics card to pick, what display to look for, which hard drive will be best for you – there are so many issues that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
There is a simple way to at least begin cutting down the choices on offer, though, and ensure you get the best PC for your needs.
And that’s to forget about the low-level technical specifications, and fine details like the brand of graphics card just for the moment and instead concentrate on something much more fundamental and important: what you will be expecting your new system to do.
So read on to find out how to buy the best computer for you, and then check out 10 best desktops for you to look at on page 2.
Best computer: using your new PC
Take a moment to think about the sort of applications you’ll want to run on your new PC, as these will help to make a decision which features your scheme will need.
If you only intend to run basic tasks – browsing the web, sending emails, running office-type software like Microsoft Word – then the good news is that most computers, even at the budget end of the market, will be able to cope with your requirements.
An entertainment PC can handle those basic jobs, too, but might also be used to watch TV and movies, listen to music, play some games, and perhaps share music and video files across a home network. Systems like this need a little more in the way of hardware power, like a larger hard drive to store all your music and movies, as well as a big screen, a good sound card and speakers, but they still don’t have to be too expensive.
If you want to play the latest games with the best possible performance, then you’ll need a gaming PC. This can be much more expensive, as not only will you need a quality screen, a good sound card and speakers, but you’ll also require a powerful graphics card, fast hard drive and a decent processor.
And if you’re not a gamer, but need to run some heavy-duty software – editing HD videos, say – then you’ll need a high-end performance PC. This should include a powerful CPU, plenty of memory, and a large, fast hard drive, so expect a sizeable bill. But you may not need the large screen or powerful graphics card of the entertainment or gaming systems, which will help to keep prices down a little.
Best computer: netbook, laptop or desktop?
With the basic applications of your new computer resolved, it’s time to think about the type of system that might be appropriate: a netbook, laptop or desktop?
Netbooks are compact notebooks with small screens (typically 10 to 12 inches), and components that are more about saving battery life than delivering raw power. So expect a slow CPU, only a little RAM (1 to 2GB, usually), no DVD drive, not too much hard drive space, and so on.
This is all that you need for basic web browsing, emailing and similar tasks, though. Their small size makes netbooks extremely portable (most are only around 1-1.5kg), battery life is usually very good at 4 to 10 hours, and you can buy some great systems from as little as £249. Our articles on the best cheap notebook and the top 15 notebooks in the world today will tell you more.
Laptops can seem bulky by comparison to their tiny netbook cousins: they might be more than twice the weight, with larger screens, and more powerful CPUs, which means battery life may struggle to reach 3 hours in some cases.
Of course they can also handle much more powerful applications, though. If you’ll be spending hours typing on the system then you’ll appreciate the larger keyboard. The built-in DVD drive makes it easier to install software and create backups, and high-end laptops can even deliver very acceptable gaming performance.
Again, we’ve a guide to suit everyone: The best cheap laptop under £350 focuses on budget systems, while our article on the best student laptops and the best 13″ laptops cover a wider range of systems.
The best gaming laptops guide reveals that you buy mobile gaming performance for as little as £599, while the more general which laptop should I buy? Article walks you through the buying process and explains how to make sure you get the right system for you.
If you don’t need a computer you can carry around, though, a desktop will be your best option. These are larger, but deliver more power for your money, and are generally much easier to upgrade or reconfigure. So if you decide you need better gaming performance, say, you can just buy another graphics card at a later date, something that won’t be possible at all with most netbooks or laptops.
If you’d like an idea of what’s available in the desktop world than our guide to What’s the best desktop PC for you? Will point you to some great systems.
And if you’re wondering whether you really need a PC at all – could a Mac be better? – then reading PC or Mac? Should help you to decide.
But if you’ve already got a list of preferred PC manufacturers then it might be more interesting to think about the hardware that your new computer should include – and there’s plenty to consider.
Best computer: technical specs
In the past, one of the first questions to ask about your new PC has been how much memory you’ll need. These days, though, even many budget PCs come with 4GB of RAM, the maximum a 32-bit Windows system can use.
If you’re short of cash and only want to run very basic programs, perhaps to browse the web or send emails, then you might just about get away with 2GB. Maybe. But opting for 4GB will help to improve your system’s performance, even here, so avoid skimping on memory if you possibly can.
If you’re buying a more high-end system, though, you might also want to consider the type of memory it should include to deliver the best results. Our articles on DDR2 vs DDR3 and How to buy RAM will tell you more.
It’s a similar situation with hard drives. If you’re buying a budget PC (around £400, say) then look for the highest capacity you can afford; we’d recommend at least 500GB, although even many budget PCs now include 1TB drives.
If you’ve more cash to spend, though, it’s worth paying more attention to the technical details. Read How to buy the best new hard drive for a grounding in the basics. And if you’ve a big budget, then solid-state drives (SSDs) deliver the best performance around, though their capacities are low. Our guide to 12 top solid-state drives will highlight the key details you need.
To help you choose between a hard disk drive and a solid-state drive, take a look at our guide SSD vs HDD: which is best?
Then of course there’s the issue of your computer’s processor: which one is best? The good news here is that even the cheapest PCs now include CPUs with two cores, essentially separate processors that allow you to run multiple tasks at the same time. But even if money is tight, look for something with more cores, if you can: something like Intel’s Core i3-530 or AMD’s Athlon II X4 640 offer decent performance at a budget price.
If you’re looking to build a high-end PC that will keep you happy for a few years, however, you’ll benefit from spending more on a processor, and once again we’ve plenty of guides to help, covering everything from value CPUs to gaming processors, our pick of the best desktop processors, and a roundup of the best 14 CPUs currently available.
While we’ve hopefully covered most of your concerns here, there may be one or two other issues you want to consider.
If you aim to play the latest games on your computer, for instance, the choice of graphics card will be critical. Let us help you out with our guides to the 10 best graphics cards under £100 and 10 best graphics cards under £200, and our roundup of the 15 best graphics cards in the world today.
And whatever you’re doing on your system, a quality LCD monitor will be crucial – so be sure to read our guide to the technical details you really need to know before you buy a monitor.
It’s a lot to consider, then, but doing your homework now will really pay off later. And that’s because understanding the features you need (and the ones you really don’t) will both save you money and help you choose the best PC that will serve you well for years to come. This, of course, is the best news of all, because your systems’ extended life means you won’t have to go computer