Desktop computers

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All-in-one or compact?

An all-in-one desktop has all the components and monitor built into one unit. A stand-alone (or “compact”) desktop is only the component box. We tested both and found there’s only one option that provides the total package right out of the box.

From our test

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All-in-one vs stand-alone

An all-in-one desktop has all the components and monitor built into one unit. A stand-alone (or “compact”) desktop is only the component box. A stand-alone desktop requires the purchase of a monitor, as well as other peripherals like a keyboard and mouse, unless you are only upgrading the system. Don’t be fooled by their size though — most tend to be about the size of a toaster — they deliver high performance.

An all-in-one desktop generally comes boxed with everything you need. An advantage of a stand-alone desktop is you can pick the monitor that best suits your needs. You can also connect your stand-alone desktop to your TV.

What to look for

There are a number of specifications you should consider before buying a desktop computer.

  • Central Processing Unit: Also referred to as “the processor”, a central processing unit (CPU) is the brains of your computer. Generally, the larger a CPU and the more cores a computer has, the faster it will run. CPU power is measured in GHz and a good CPU should be 1.4GHz or larger.

  • Cores: Cores allow the CPU to multitask functions. The more cores a CPU has, the more tasks it can complete at the same time, though the number of cores is not proportional to the number of tasks.

  • Graphics Processing Unit: A graphics processing unit (GPU) frees up the CPU by taking care of the graphics tasks. Unlike CPUs, GPUs aren’t rated by GHz. GPU performance is often affected by how much RAM is available. Some computers have dedicated RAM for the GPU.

  • HDD & SSD: The hard disc drive (HDD) is where data is stored on your computer, apart from files you store on the cloud. There are two common types of hard drive; Standard (referred to as hard disc drive – HDD) that has a spinning disk inside and solid state drives (SSD) that are a series of memory chips. A hard drive of 300GB or more should be sufficient for the average user. If you work with images, videos, other large files or use lots of software, then you should consider more storage, at least 1TB.

  • RAM: A processor needs random access memory (RAM) to temporarily store relevant data about its current tasks. RAM helps a processor perform to its optimum.

Choosing your operating system

There are several operating systems (OS) available for desktop computers. The most common are Microsoft’s Windows and Apple OS X. Google’s Chrome OS is also gaining in popularity. Linux and UNIX are less commonly known. Each company has multiple versions of their OS in use.

The 5 OSs appearing in our two tests are Microsoft versions 8.1 and 10 Home, Apple’s OS X 10.10 and 10.11.5 and Chrome 33. Most desktops will have one of these operating systems pre-installed. If you want another OS, you will need to install it yourself or get a technician to do it.

Picture perfect

All-in-one desktops usually boast big screens, but how good is the picture? The Retina screens in Apple’s iMacs have more pixels per inch (PPI) than standard HD screens, which means images appear smoother.

In our test, only the iMacs had excellent reflection minimisation.
In our test, only the iMacs had excellent reflection minimisation.

PPI is different to 4K and 5K, which describes the total number of horizontal pixels. A 4K screen has at least 4000 pixels horizontally and 5K screens, 5000 pixels. An average high-definition screen has about 2000 pixels horizontally. It’s worth noting, the average human eye struggles to notice differences between 4K and 5K screens.

Even the best screen looks bad if it’s reflecting too much light. The glossier a computer screen is, the more likely it is to reflect light. This means just because a model looked great in the low light of the store doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results at home. In our test, only the iMacs had excellent reflection minimisation.

All our tested desktops running Windows had touchscreens, great for sketching and design work. It can be awkward using a touchscreen in an upright position for long periods, so most all-in-one screens can tilt for easier use. How much they tilt varies, but it’s generally between -6° and 30°. The Dell Inspiron 24 7000 Series can go completely horizontal, making drawing easier.

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First Look: Microsoft Surface Studio

The Microsoft Surface Studio is the company’s first move into the world of stand-alone desktops. It’s aimed at designers and allows you to draw directly on to the screen.

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