Consumer Reports – Desktop Computers

Brooke Yan asked:

The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. Replacement sales–not first-time purchases–now drive the computer market. Fully loaded desktops selling for less than $800 are common, even among established brands.


There are dozens of companies vying to put a new desktop in your home. Dell, eMachines, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard (which merged with Compaq in 2002), IBM, and Sony all make machines that use Microsoft’s dominant Windows operating system. eMachines, recently merged with Gateway, specializes in budget-priced Windows models. Apple is the sole maker of Macintosh models. Small mail-order and store brands cater to budget-minded buyers.

Price range: $400 to $3,000.


The processor houses the “brains” of a computer. Its clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), determines how fast the chip can process information. In general, the higher the clock speed, the faster the computer. But not always, since different chip families attain different efficiencies. Manufacturers of Windows machines generally use 1.6- to 3.8-GHz processors with one of the following names: Intel’s Pentium or Celeron, or AMD’s Athlon or Sempron. Celeron and Sempron are lower-priced processors that equal higher-priced chips in many respects. Intel now assigns “processor numbers” to its chips, de-emphasizing clock speed. Apple’s Macintosh machines use 1.25- to 2.5-GHz PowerPC G4 or G5 processors, which are manufactured by IBM. Apple has announced that they will begin a transition to Intel processors in 2006.The system architecture of some families of chips allows them to be as fast as or faster than others with higher clock speeds, so speed comparison by the numbers can be misleading.

All name-brand computers sold today have at least 256 megabytes (MB) of RAM, or random access memory, the memory the computer uses while in operation. Video RAM, also measured in megabytes, is secondary RAM essential for smooth video imaging and game play.

The hard drive is your computer’s long-term data storage system. Given the disk-space requirements of today’s multimedia games, digital photos, and video files, bigger is better. You’ll find hard drives ranging in size from 40 to 300 gigabytes (GB).

A CD-ROM drive has been standard on most desktops for many years. Commonly supplied now is a CD-RW (CD-rewriteable) drive, also known as a “burner” that lets you create backup files or make music compilations on a compact disc. A DVD-ROM drive brings full-length movies or action-packed multimedia games with full-motion video to the desktop. It complements the CD-RW drive on midline and higher-end systems, allowing you to copy CDs directly between the two drives. A DVD writer will also play CDs and CD-ROMs. Combo drives combine CD-writing and DVD-playing in a single drive, saving space. The newest in this family, rapidly becoming a common choice, is the DVD-writer, which lets you transfer home-video footage to a DVD disk, or store as much data as six CDs. There are three competing, incompatible DVD formats–DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM–as well as drives that can create dual-layer DVDs that store twice as much. Some drives can write in more than one format, but all can create a disk that will play on standalone DVD players.

Fast disappearing is the diskette drive, where 3.5-inch diskettes are inserted. Apple Macintoshes and a growing number of PCs don’t have a diskette drive built in, because it only allows you to read or store relatively small amounts of data. Many people use a CD-RW as a large “diskette” drive to transport files. Many PCs now come with a digital camera memory-card reader that can also serve for file transfer. You can also get external drives or use a USB memory module that holds much more than a diskette.

The computer’s cathode ray tube (CRT) or flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor contains the screen and displays the images sent from the graphics board–internal circuitry that processes the images. Monitors come in sizes (measured diagonally) ranging from 15 to 21 inches and larger. Seventeen-inch monitors are the most common. Apple’s eMac and iMac come with built-in monitors. Its Mac Mini comes without a monitor. LCD displays are now the most popular, taking less space and using less power than CRTs. Better LCD displays can use a Digital Video Interface (DVI) connection, found on many newer PCs.

The critical components of a desktop computer are usually housed in a case called a tower. A minitower is the typical configuration. More expensive machines have a midtower, which has extra room for upgrades. A microtower is a space-saving alternative that is usually less expensive. All-in-one computers, such as the Apple iMac, have no tower; everything but the keyboard and mouse is built into a small case that supports the monitor. Apple’s Power Mac line of computers has a tower. Apple’s newest model, the Mac Mini, has a space-saving design that puts everything but the monitor, keyboard, and mouse in a case about the size of a hardcover book. An “entertainment PC”–one with a TV tuner built in–comes in a case that is more like an audio or video component, made to fit in with other home-entertainment devices.

A mouse, a small device that fits in your hand and has a “tail” of wire that connects to the computer, moves the cursor (the pointer on the screen) via a rolling ball or a light sensor on its underside. Alternatives include a trackball, which is rolled with the fingers or palm in the direction you want the cursor to go; a pad, which lets you move the cursor by sliding a finger; a tablet, which uses a penlike stylus for input; and a joystick, used to play computer games.

Most computers come with a standard keyboard, although you can also buy one separately. Many keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls to pause playback, change tracks, and so on. Many also have keys to facilitate getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. There are also wireless keyboards that let you move about as you type.

Multimedia computers for home use feature a high-fidelity sound system that amplifies music from CDs or downloaded music files, synthesized music, game sounds, and DVD-movie soundtracks. Speaker systems with a subwoofer have deeper, more powerful bass. Surround-sound systems can turn a PC into a home theater. Some computers come with a microphone for recording, or one can be added.

PCs come with a modem to allow a dial-up Internet connection. Parallel and serial ports are the traditional connections for printers and scanners. Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, seen on all new computers, are designed to replace parallel and serial ports. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and other electronic equipment. An Ethernet port or wireless network card lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. An S-video output jack lets you run a video cable from the computer to a television, which lets you use the computer’s DVD drive to view a movie on a TV instead of on the computer monitor.


First, decide whether to upgrade your current computer. Upgrading, rather than replacing it, may make sense if your additional needs are modest–a second hard drive, say, because you’re running out of room for digital photos. Adding memory or a CD burner is usually more cost-effective than buying a whole new machine. If your PC has become unreliable, your want list is more demanding, or if there’s software you must run that your system is not up to, a new PC is the logical answer.

Consider a laptop. A desktop computer typically costs hundreds less and is easier to upgrade, expand, and repair. It usually offers better ergonomics, such as a more comfortable keyboard, bigger display, and enhanced audio. But a laptop merits consideration if portability and compactness are priorities.

Pick the right type of desktop. Most manufacturers offer several lines at different price points. Budget computers are the least expensive, yet they are suitable for routine work. Workhorse computers cost a few hundred dollars more, but are faster, more versatile, and upgradable. All-in-one models have most of the components in a single case. And entertainment or media PCs include TV tuners and software that give them the functions of a DVR. They usually provide a remote control for easy operation.

Choose by brand. Our surveys have consistently shown notable differences in reliability and technical support among computer brands. And some brands are generally more expensive than others. Those factors could help you decide which of two similarly equipped computers is the better buy.

Choose between preconfigured and custom built. You can buy a PC off the shelf in a store or via the Web, configured with features and options the manufacturer pitches to average consumers. Or consider purchasing a desktop that you configure to order, either online or in a store. When you configure a computer to order online, onscreen menus typically show you all the options and let you see how a change in one option affects the overall price.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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