How to Choose the Right Desktop PC
Everyone needs a PC, especially at work. Email, Twitter, chat apps, the web: All of these technologies keep today’s businesses humming. It might be tempting to buy a simple consumer PC from a big-box store like Best Buy or Walmart for your startup, but you’ll be doing yourself and your customers a disservice if you do. Specialized business PCs have extra features that make them better suited to the office than the $300 sales-circular special.
For one, business desktops are built to last longer, and are easier to service than consumer PCs. After all, the longer a business PC is down, the more money it costs you in lost earning time. Business PC makers may have specialized tech-support lines to help you troubleshoot your hardware meltdown or your QuickBooks problem. At the very least, you can add a service contract to your business PC so that onsite support calls are handled by techs who respond in hours rather than in the days or weeks most consumer tech-support turnaround takes.
Core, Ryzen, or Xeon? Assessing CPUs
Dual- and quad-core processors, particularly in the Intel Core i3 and Core i5 lines, are the norm in business PCs. Celeron and Pentium dual-core CPUs are found in lower-priced desktop PCs, and use technology trickled down from the higher-end Intel Core processor line, but we’d look to the higher-spec Core chips instead of these.
Consider buying a slightly more powerful processor if you’re concerned about keeping your system for a lengthy useful life. Faster CPUs are a must for today’s attention-challenged, multitasking PC users. Core i5, Core i7, Core i9, or Xeon CPUs are prime options for users like graphic artists, hard-core number crunchers, and other gearheads who stress over the speed of their PCs. Much less common among business machines, but also viable options, are desktops based on AMD’s Ryzen and Ryzen Pro CPUs. (See our deep-dive guide to today’s desktop processors.)
As for memory, look for absolutely no less than 4GB of RAM, though 8GB is really the sweet spot nowadays that most users should insist on as a minimum. In general, the more memory you can get the better, especially for people who work in graphic design and Web development—they will need no less than 16GB. More memory allows you to do two things: open up more programs and windows at once, and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster. Less than 8GB is really suitable only for an occasional-use desktop that won’t be tasked with running more than one program at a time.
Storage: SSD or Hard Drive?
You’ll always see exceptions, but business PCs often require less storage than consumer PCs, since you’re less likely to use them to sync your iPhone or to house your personal video collection. Unless you’re a pro content creator, many of the key day-to-day files you or your users access will tend to be housed on common servers, and business folks may well spend much of their time in cloud services for key operations. Even so, since storage is so inexpensive these days, a hard drive with around 500GB of space strikes a good balance between economy and space. Frankly, 60GB of available storage could be enough for just about all the PowerPoint, Word, and Excel documents you use on a day-to-day basis, especially if your office uses a network to house (and thus back up) files.
Compared with traditional hard drives, solid-state drives (SSDs) fetch you less capacity per dollar. But an SSD-only system will boot and launch programs almost as quickly as your phone does. A 256GB SSD should be sufficient for office workers’ needs, today and for the near future, but it may cost you more than a machine with a traditional hard drive. Larger SSDs, 512GB or 1TB in capacity, are speedy options for power users, but these upgrades will boost your per-unit purchase price. That said, a small-capacity SSD is far preferable to a large, slower hard drive whose capacity your office users will never fill.
Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, but a DVD burner is still a useful addition to a small-business PC. You may need it to burn copies of projects for your clients, or to read the occasional CD or DVD that’s either sent to you by a supplier or customer or that contains important records or files from several years ago.
Graphics: The Basics Usually Suffice
Most business PCs come with an integrated graphics processor (IGP)—that is, video capabilities that are built into the central processor. Most of the time, integrated graphics will be just fine, since you won’t be playing games on your work desktop. You can spot an IGP solution in an Intel-based system by the names “Intel HD Graphics,” “Intel UHD Graphics,” or “Intel Iris Plus Graphics.”
Most workers who require a PC with “discrete” graphics (that is, a separate graphics chip or card) need it for specialized tasks, such as GPU acceleration in a content creation application or 3D graphics visualization for architectural drawings, or for displaying to more than two or three monitors. Computers that use ultra-small or ultra-slim form factors will likely have only integrated graphics and no card slots. These systems are best suited to general PC tasks (a category into which most business tasks fall).
Check out our deep dive on the best graphics cards for much more on assessing discrete graphics.
Room to Grow: Slots and Bays
Most minitower and some small-form-factor (SFF) budget desktops will have a measure of expansion. You’ll find space for at least one extra internal hard drive, a PCI Express (PCIe) x16 video card slot, a selection of PCIe x1 expansion slots, perhaps a legacy PCI slot or two, and maybe space for a second optical drive or other “big bay” device (seldom needed nowadays). You may also find extra DIMM slots, which will let you upgrade your memory later.
More and more, desktop PCs have on-motherboard slots for what are called M.2 drives, small sticklike SSDs (or sometimes, Wi-Fi cards) that let you mount an SSD straight onto the board. (See our guide to the best M.2 SSDs.) Usually when present in a prebuilt business PC, the M.2 slot is occupied by the boot drive, but some systems may have an extra slot.
Eventual upgrades in a business PC are likely to be modest, however, by tendency and necessity. Why the latter? The 125- to 350-watt power supply in these PCs won’t be able to power more than a low-end graphics card. Memory or storage upgrades will have only a trivial effect on power consumption, so this is not a concern if you’re adding those kinds of hardware.
All-in-One PCs: Space Savers
Don’t need multiple hard drives and/or multiple graphics cards for your users? Consider deploying all-in-ones instead of tower PCs. All-in-one desktops have the benefit of a built-in screen without the theft and travel breakage risks that business laptops face every day. While many come with high-performance processors (such as Intel Core i5 or Core i7) for your demanding users, there are also models that are available with energy-saving processors for everyone else. Intel’s power-saving U-series processors are built for ultraportable laptops, but you’ll also find them in some all-in-one PCs.
If you choose an all-in-one PC with DisplayPort or HDMI inputs, the screen will continue to be usable even after the internal CPU and storage become obsolete. Touch screens are useful for certain applications (kiosk, point of sale, and information retrieval come to mind), and the all-in-one form factor lends itself to touch-screen computing. Touch is not yet as essential on desktop PCs as it is on tablets and laptops, but if you’re launching touch apps on Windows, you’ll probably want to go with an all-in-one desktop PC.
Mini PCs and Sticks: Bringing It Really Small
Most mini PCs (also known as ultra-small-form-factor, or USFF, desktops) run on the same basic components as laptops: low-power processors, non-upgradable integrated graphics, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, smaller hard drives or flash storage, no optical drives, and Windows 10 or Linux—assuming there’s an operating system at all.
They’re built to surf the Web, run Office apps, and perform other light computing duties. Unlike larger systems, mini PCs have almost no capacity for internal expansion. This means they are best suited for applications where they can sit unattended in a locked cabinet or behind a screen, serving as point of sale terminals in a retail environment, for digital signage, or in kiosk use.
We wouldn’t recommend running a business on a mini PC, unless you just need an email terminal and are planning to buy a whole new system in less than three years. The extra speed and upgradability of a larger desktop PC will pay off if you ever have to recalculate a spreadsheet in the 10 minutes before the client arrives, or quickly retouch a photo or document layout.
The most portable type of computer that still technically counts as a desktop is the “stick PC.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a computer in a tiny, long-and-thin form factor that’s easy to carry with you anywhere. These work by taking advantage of the HDMI input ports that are now built into almost every monitor and television by turning that screen into your display. Just plug the stick PC into one of those ports, connect the power cable, add a keyboard and mouse, and you’re good to go.
You are extremely limited in terms of your output ports (there’s only so much room on that stick, after all), and you don’t get a lot of storage (usually only about 32GB to 64GB). But if you’re a frequent business traveler, especially one who makes a lot of presentations, a stick PC can be handy and even supplement your laptop. (See a guide to all of our favorite mini PCs.)
The more corporate-oriented a PC is, the more likely it will have security features (like Kensington or Noble lock ports, TPM, and vPro); easy-to-access, IT-friendly components; and remote desktop management tools. You’ll need these features only if you’re a rapidly growing business or already have more than a dozen employees.
Once a business expands beyond a half-dozen employees with PCs, it likely will need a dedicated IT staffer or subcontractor, and they will need PCs with corporate IT features to make deployment and troubleshooting easier. If you run a startup or small partnership with just a few staff members, then buying a budget business PC is fine—just be prepared to face longer waits on tech-support phone lines when things do go wrong. With a small-business-oriented desktop, there are usually dedicated sales and technical support personnel who can help you tailor your purchase and support to your business’ needs.
Often one of the reasons a PC is inexpensive is that, as with broadcast TV and “free” cell phones, some other entity is subsidizing the price. Bloatware consists of all of those trial software applications that are designed to tempt you into buying stuff that didn’t come with your PC. (It’s worth noting that Macs do not have this issue.) It can be hard to remove bloatware completely from your system, and leaving it in place can even compromise performance. Although many desktops come with some bloatware, manufacturers tend to put more of it into lower-end models.
Fortunately, PCs targeted specifically at business, for the most part, have minimal bloatware. On Windows desktops, there’s almost always a trial version of Microsoft Office, but in a business context that can be a good thing. You can upgrade to a fully functional version with all the Office programs including Outlook, Access, and PowerPoint simply by clicking the link to Microsoft’s site and entering your credit card number. There’s usually an antivirus suite, as well, but be wary of packages that stop updating after 60 to 90 days. You don’t want to get a virus on the computer you depend on to earn your money. Again, this is one case where you might consider upgrading to the full version over the internet (assuming your company doesn’t have its own antivirus strategy, of course).
Warranties and Future-Proofing
For consumer electronics, most experts recommend avoiding the extended warranty, but for a business PC, the extended warranty can mean the difference between getting your work done or being forced to close shop early. Most business PCs come with a one-, three-, or five-year standard warranty. Usually this means that you tell the PC manufacturer what’s wrong, and they’ll either ship you a replacement part or send over a repair tech in a timely manner (say, 24 to 36 hours during the work week).
If you need a faster response, you can buy warranties from some manufacturers for eight-hour response, two-hour response, or even onsite on-call help, depending on your needs. Other options include “keep-your-drive” plans, so your data never leaves your premises, accidental damage protection, data recovery, and even end-of-life data destruction services. It all comes at an added cost, but like any insurance, whether it is worth it to you depends on what you need to protect.
These days, it may be tempting to grab the cheapest system you can find and call it your “business PC,” but don’t do it. Keep in mind that what you buy must last at least as long as it takes for you to amortize the capital investment (usually three to five years, but the exact length depends on your company’s accounting practices). Paying a little extra for more power or capabilities now will save you headaches down the road. The added value of a longer warranty, specialized tech support, and/or the elimination of bloatware are among the extra benefits you may get.
So, Which Business Desktop Should I Buy?
We refresh this list often to include the newest products, but because of the large number of desktops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. For now, our top picks are below. If your employees need portability, also check out our top picks for business laptops.
Need to add peripherals to your work space? We’ve also rounded up the best business monitors we’ve tested, along with our favorite keyboards and printers.
Acer Aspire TC-885-UA92
Pros: Great value. Best current performance for the category. Slick design with a small footprint. Optical drive, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth included. USB-C port.
Cons: Integrated graphics make gaming and 3D apps nonstarters. Somewhat cramped interior.
Bottom Line: The Acer Aspire TC-885-UA92 is our top pick among budget desktops for its excellent value, delivering speedy performance and a solid feature set at a very reasonable price.
Intel NUC 9 Extreme Kit (Ghost Canyon)
Pros: Stellar performance, especially for its size
Upgrade potential of a full desktop
Power supply is internal
Healthy selection of ports
Three-year warranty comes standard
Cons: Pricey, especially in Core i9 guise
Can only be oriented one way
Bottom Line: The bar has been reset for mini PCs: With deep upgrade options and a unique internal architecture based on Intel’s Compute Element, the game-changing NUC 9 Extreme brings near-tower power down to the truly small.
Apple iMac 27-Inch With 5K Retina Display (2019)
Pros: Gorgeous Retina display.
Sleek styling and extreme attention to detail.
Top-notch computing performance.
Solid sound quality.
Excellent software bundle.
Cons: Expensive as configured.
Small storage capacity.
No HDMI or dedicated DisplayPort output.
Lacks height adjustment.
No touch screen.
Bottom Line: With a newly available Intel Core i9 CPU and updated AMD Radeon Pro graphics, the 2019 reboot of the 27-inch Apple iMac all-in-one is now as powerful as it is beautiful.
Apple iMac Pro
Pros: Intel Xeon CPU and AMD Radeon Vega offer serious computing power.
Gorgeous design in Space Gray extends to the wireless peripherals.
Performance gains depend upon workflow.
Bottom Line: The Apple iMac Pro is a beautiful ode to creative professionals, combining remarkable computing power with the same brilliant 5k display and sleek design of the iMac.
Apple Mac mini (2018)
Pros: Deep connectivity for its size, including four Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Memory is SO-DIMM, not soldered.
Configurable up to six cores/12 threads.
New storage (2TB) and RAM (64GB) ceilings.
Top-notch pre-installed software.
Cons: RAM not technically a user upgrade.
No option for a 2.5-inch hard drive as internal mass storage.
Scanty SSD on base model.
Bottom Line: Apple’s iconic Mac mini compact desktop delivers more core-processing, storage, and memory potential than ever, in a polished box brimming with cutting-edge connectivity.
Dell Precision 7920 Tower (2020)
Pros: Sky-high performance potential. Countless configuration options. ISV certified. Highly serviceable and expandable. Standard three-year onsite warranty.
Cons: Options quickly raise the price. Usefulness of dual processors depends on software.
Bottom Line: Dell’s Precision 7920 Tower workstation is a dual-CPU monster for tasks that can leverage its server-grade hardware and require maximum reliability. Just be prepared for sticker shock if you go all-in like on our test model.
HP Z2 Tower G4
Pros: Powerful performance for the money, as tested. Highly configurable. Compact for a mid-tower. Quiet cooling fans. Removable dust filters. Standard three-year warranty.
Cons: Unlocked CPU in test config (Core i9-9900K) isn’t overclockable.
Bottom Line: HP’s Z2 Tower G4 measures up to the workstation competition and then some. As tested with an Intel Core i9 CPU and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 5000 GPU, it offers solid performance per dollar and quiet operation, not to mention excellent expansion potential.
Lenovo ThinkCentre M720q Tiny
Pros: Tons of at-purchase configuration options.
Includes security features for businesses.
Chassis is compact, rugged, and easily serviced.
Plenty of ports.
Cons: Minimal room for internal expansion, beyond 2.5-inch bay.
Bundled keyboard and mouse are wired and subpar.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s ThinkCentre M720q Tiny is a well-rounded, capable SFF PC suitable for cramped offices or other space-constrained work environs.
Just nail the configuration you need up front—upgradability is limited.
Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Pros: Elegant all-in-one digital creation solution.
Super-thin, spectacular display that reclines.
Accurate touch input for art/design work.
Bundled Surface Pen.
CPU could be beefier, considering separated base.
Video out via USB-C, not a dedicated port.
Bottom Line: Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2 is a beautiful, pricey all-in-one desktop for artists, content creators, and professionals wedded to pen input.
It packs components peppier than the original’s, and a downright stunning screen.
Dell Optiplex 7070 Ultra
Pros: Clever space-saving design with essentially zero footprint.
Toolless access for installation and maintenance.
Options to include various stands, monitors.
Can support up to three displays.
Cons: So-so performance in test configuration.
Somewhat tricky-to-access port layout.
Can get more value out of traditional towers, all-in-one PCs.
Bottom Line: The OptiPlex 7070 Ultra isn’t a perfect crack at a new idea—a business desktop with the PC bits built into the neck of its display—but it’s an appealing concept that saves space, is easily manageable, and is likely here to stay.
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