The Quick Version
If fate insists that you have to have a Windows Desktop then there are some excellent hardware choices to be had out there. However, hardware was never the problem with Windows, it's the Viruses and Junk Software.
The Key Points
1. Seen as old fashioned, but desktops still have a place for some types of use.
4. More flexible than any other approach to computers.
5. Dreadful problems with Security (see Viruses and Junk Software).
I have spent a lot of time in these pages explaining why Windows is a poor choice as a home computer (see Windows or Not?). If you have read all that and you're still absolutely convinced that your world will end if you don't have Windows at home right now and you have a note from your mum signed in triplicate stating that you understand the consequences and despite all that you are still going to go for it, then I promise to do my best to get you a good one.
WHICH ONES TO BUY?
Desktop Computers have a bit of an image problem. They are seen as old fashioned. The sort of thing your grandpa would have used when he was a boy. But that's being unfair to them. There are still cases where a desktop is a good match. Here are the three most common:
- When you want something cheap and it has to be Windows.
- When you want a machine optimised for playing games.
- When you want to do something wacky and you need more flexibility than you can get from any other sort of computer.
If you have a use that's outside of those 3 cases, make sure you are not just buying a desktop because that's what you had last time. Things have moved on and you might enjoy one of the other options more. What Shape? has all the details.
Taking each of the 3 cases in turn:
Here are some examples of cheap but good Windows Desktops (US $379 - UK £299). They are not the cheapest possible desktops, but you don't want to buy a computer only for the lowest possible price any more than you would buy a car in that way. These have good specs and should be fine for all normal tasks.
Remember, these will not come with a screen. You can either reuse the screen from your old computer, or a grab a new one (US $159 - UK £112). But if you are buying a new screen as well as the computer you should also consider an All-in-one.
If price is your main motivation, make sure you also read my page on Windows Laptops. I have a piece in there about machines that go down as low as $99. Now that really is cheap.
People who don't play games on computers wonder why on earth you need special equipment for such things. The answer, if you are playing some games, is you don't. A lot of games are really not very demanding and will run on just about any old computer. So when your 11 year old comes to you and insists he has to have a $3,000 fire breathing monster of a gaming PC to play Mindcraft, you might want to dig a little deeper.
The type of game that does need lots of power are First Person Shooters. That's a game where you dash through a world shooting at things whilst they shoot back. The First Person bit means the view you see on your screen and is meant to look like what you would see if you were actually there looking at it with your own eyes, doing the running, shooting the laser rifle etc. The same sort of thing applies in car racing games. Anything that is trying to make a realistic video out of nothing in real time. To make that all look real takes a lot of computer power. Gamers want to keep upping the standard, larger screens, more detail. All that means more power. That's why they spend lots of money on extra powerful computers. How much money? Well, how deep are your pockets.
Again if your 11 year old says this is what he wants, give him a Playstation 4 (US $399 - UK £329) it's a fraction of the cost of a high end gaming PC and will deliver all the First Person Shooter goodness he can cope with. High end gaming PCs are normally purchased by 20 and 30 year old enthusiasts with their own money and they know exactly what they want because they spend a lot of time talking about it to their peers.
There are plenty of enthusiast websites that will show you how to configure the most extreme possible rigs with money-no-object components. Of course such things quickly become out of date as new equipment appears, so it's a full time hobby keeping up to date. But all that's a little outside the scope of this website (although I do have such a machine and I have to say it is very good at keeping my study cosy warm in the winter).
People sometimes want desktops because they want to do something that is not mainstream. I, for example, find it difficult to work within the confines of one screen, because I have a lot of things going on at any one time. So I have a bank of them on my desk. A normal computer will typically let you plug in 1 or 2 screens. An add-on like this US $222 - UK £219 will let you plug in 6 screens at the same time! Do you need that? Probably not unless you are a full time geek or a derivatives trader, but it illustrates the point that desktop computers can be configured in all sorts of funky ways to do non-standard tasks.
Now, can I give a recommendation for a computer that will fit all of these different use cases that you are busy dreaming up? Of course not. One size does not fit all. I suggest you dive into the Forums and post a question, it's free and mostly entirely painless to do. I (or anyone else reading it), will then be able to post suggestions tailored to you.
If you are too shy to post in the forum, get yourself one of the gaming machines I linked to above (US $1,599 - UK £1,429). They are very powerful machines that can do a lot more than play games. The big cases they come in mean there is space to fit additional components as needed to suit your needs.
HOW TO FIX WINDOWS 8
Unfortunately all these machines come with Windows 8.1, which has been about as popular as genital warts. To give you some idea Microsoft will be calling the next version Windows 10. What happened to Windows 9? It never existed and never will. The marketing people know that Windows 8 was so detested they wanted to distance themselves from it as much as possible. It kind of leaves you speechless doesn't it?
So what the hell am I doing recommending computers with Windows 8.1 on? Firstly I did say only buy Windows if you have to (Windows or Not?). Secondly I also said you probably don't need Windows even if you are convinced you do. Thirdly you can buy laptops with Windows 7 on, but it limits your choices. Fourthly, there is a fix. Grab a copy of StarDock's Start8 and ModernMix bundle for $7.99. That takes all the sting out of what people hate about Windows 8.1 by making it much more like Windows 7 (which is also what Windows 10 is all about).
Windows has by far the worse security of any type of computer used in the home today (see Viruses and Junk Software for details).
Don't assume that Anti-Virus software will save you. Everyone has anti-virus software and yet there is still a huge and growing industry that makes billions of dollars a year scamming people with Windows computers. If anti-virus software was invincible that industry would simply not exist.
Read Protecting Windows for advice on how to lock it down as much as possible.
Windows does not automatically backup your files. But you can add an excellent automatic online backup in the form of Carbonite (www.carbonite.com).
Don't skimp on this and think you will be alright with a trusty memory stick and lots of good intentions, it's a recipe for losing a lot of precious data in no time flat. A good quality automatic online backup is the way to stay safe and that description fits Carbonite. They have been around a long time and I personally have done numerous recoveries from them, they always get the files back.
This is where Windows' star shines bright. Because Windows has had such a dominant market share for such a long time almost any type of software or hardware you could possibly think of will run on it. It may be that despite all of its security issues fate will insist you run Windows because it's the only thing that runs the software that you absolutely must have. But before you make that call, read The Key Trade Off. You may find that all the things you thought were impossible in the alternative systems to Windows actually work just fine and you may not need to expose yourself to all the scams to get the things you want and need.
BUT THIS IS ALL NONSENSE!
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
NEIL OBVIOUSLY JUST HATES WINDOWS!
It would be easy to read the text above and assume I have some personal vendetta against Windows. That's not it, it's more nuanced than that. For the record, my favourite user interface for a keyboard and mouse system is Windows 7 (not Windows 8, that's a dog's breakfast and universally hated, although it can be greatly improved with Start8 and ModernMix from Stardock if you are already stuck with it). But of course I'm super careful about what I install on Windows, use it in a very locked down way, have spent the last 38 years learning exactly have to do this stuff safely and it's just one of the types of computers I use.
Where I am coming from is that I have spent the last 10 years trying to keep normal folks safe from computer crime as they use a computer at home. It's like we're trying to cross a chasm with a vicious rapid at the bottom. Windows is the rope bridge taking us across. I am a guide showing people where it's safe to tread and lashing in new bits of rope to hold things together. I get most of them across, but some fall because they don't listen, some fall just because it's a wobbly old bridge with so many gaps. Many try to get across without a guide (most of them fall).
All the time I have been doing this various builders have been constructing other bridges across the chasm, using modern materials like steel and carbon fibre. They don't always carry all the same traffic the old rope bridge does, and people don't use them because they are familiar with the old ways, but no one falls on the new bridges. One day I woke up and thought "What the hell am I doing pouring all this effort into protecting the old ways? Why don't I just help people find a safer bridge?"
So, no, I don't hate Windows. I hate the scumbag criminals who will encrypt the first 5 years of a baby's photos and demand a ransom of the mother to get them back (yes that is a real life example from my day job). It particularly hurts because I know about about how these things work and know that it simply doesn't have to be that way. The technology is capable of eliminating this problem and I want to be part of the solution.
Of course I should point out that the question of what type of computer you should use has become ridiculously tribal. If I object to something in how Windows works there is a large group of people (us geeks call them fanboys, and yes, that word is an insult) who will assume that means I am a fanboy for Macs. Equally, say something negative about the Mac, that tribe will get all very over excited and condemn everything I say, not just on that topic, but on everything I have ever said on any topic (honestly, fanboys really are that stupid. If you have not come across fanboys you really should read my article on the subject, it will help you understand a lot of the comments you read on the Internet not just on this subject, but on all sorts of things on all sorts of pages). You can see those types of tribes starting to form around the new platforms, people who would only ever use an iPhone, others who think that's heresy and would only use an Android device.
Of course serious geeks don't think that way. We use all the different systems and enjoy what's good about each one in turn. If something is good, we say, if something is bad, we say. Windows has much that is good about it, but giving it to normal folks to play with in the home is like giving a small child an open bottle of bleach and hoping everything will be OK.
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.