So, despite Hither Green IT’s finest efforts to repair it, your desktop computer has given up the ghost and you need another one. Do you go new or used?
Update October 2020 - all prices mentioned below were correct at the time of writing (June 2020), but since then demand for both new and used computers has rocketed due to the pandemic. The advice below remains the same, but prices have definitely gone up.
NB - the guide below is for desktop computers - there are different considerations to make when buying a laptop, which can be found in a separate guide here .
The first thing to mention is that desktop PCs are generally much more easily repaired and upgraded compared to laptops, as the parts are accessible, and cheaper to replace. But if you do need to replace the entire machine, you can often repurpose your existing peripherals (monitor, mouse, keyboard etc.) and just purchase a new main unit. (If you have a fairly decent modern laptop, another option is to buy the correct cables, and sometimes a hub or a dock, to allow you to connect your laptop to these peripherals and turn it into a kind of “poor man’s” desktop - the image from your laptop will appear on the monitor and you will be able to control it with the keyboard and mouse. But it wouldn’t give you the same potential power as a full desktop machine.)
NB - the below information is really advice for buying a desktop PC. I will cover Apple Macs at the end of the article.
Specifications to look out for in desktop PC machines:
Processor: Intel Core i3/i5/i7/i9 or an AMD Athlon or Ryzen 3/5/7/9. Avoid Intel Celeron/Pentium and AMD A/E series processors - they are too weak for anything other than extremely light computing really. For basic desktop usage an Intel i3 or AMD Athlon/Ryzen 3 will be fine, but if you want to play games or edit video, you will be better off with an Intel i5/i7/i9 or a Ryzen 5/7/9 (we’ll see why later in the article). Currently I favour the AMD line as your get more bang for your buck compared to Intel processors.
RAM: At least 8GB for basic desktop usage, at least 16GB for gaming and video editing
Disk: You want a Solid State Drive (SSD) , at least 250GB and preferably 500GB or larger. Don’t get a machine without an SSD at all, as it will feel slow from the moment you take it out of the box! For an average desktop user, a 500GB SSD should be enough to hold all your programs and files, and an additional SSD or mechanical hard drive could be added later to expand the storage. Another option is to go for a smaller 250GB SSD just for Windows and your programs, and an extra 1TB (1000GB) mechanical hard drive for your files.
However, if you are a gamer or video editor you might want to spend a bit more to get as much SSD storage as possible, as loading games will certainly be a lot quicker (as will importing video into editing software) if you use an SSD for these activities. At current prices, a 240GB SSD is about £40, a 500GB SSD is about £60, a 1TB (1000GB) SSD is about £100 and a 1TB mechanical drive is about £40.
Graphics card: All Intel processors, as well as AMD Athlon/Ryzen ones that have a “G” on the end (3000G/3200G/3400G for example), have an integrated graphics chip. (NB - AMD Athlon/Ryzen processors without a “G” on the end will require a separate graphics card as they have no integrated chip).
Integrated graphics chips are able to handle basic desktop usage and video playback without a problem, and can even often manage some light gaming and video editing as well. The integrated graphics chips (Vega) in AMD Ryzen chips are generally better than their Intel counterparts, although there isn’t much in it. But really, if you want a machine for playing games and/or editing video, you will get a much better experience if you buy a machine with a separate dedicated graphics card (or add one yourself after purchase). Generally a graphics card costs anywhere between £150-500 depending on the graphical power you want/need. Specific details and choices are beyond the scope of this article, and once you are at this level of requirements, it’s best to start to acquire your own technical knowledge anyway.
WiFi: if you need WiFi, you need to make sure you have a decent WiFi card inside your machine, preferably one that is dual band and can handle good speeds (see my WiFi fundamentals blog article for more details about WiFi). However, if your desktop happens to be close enough to your main router, you can wire it up instead (which will provide a much better connection anyway).
Peripherals: if you need, or want, a new monitor, try to get one that is at least 1080p, and pick an appropriate size. If you are doing a lot of photo and video editing, or need to have a lot of windows open at once, you’ll probably want a larger screen with a higher (2K or 4K) resolution. Gamers will also want a fairly large screen too - and if you want to game at high resolutions, your monitor and your graphics card will both need to support these. As with a graphics card, specific monitor details and choices for gaming and high end video editing are beyond the scope of this article. PC gamers and video editors ideally need to have a high level of enthusiasm for the technical details of their setup, as it can be complex.
A note here on “all-in-one” desktop PCs. These are PCs where the monitor and desktop components are all put into the same single physical unit (much like Apple iMacs which we will come to later). Whilst this clean look might be tempting, tread carefully - depending on the specific model, these can be much more like consumer laptops - it can often be very difficult to access the internal components for repairs and upgrades, and indeed, on newer models, these components (such as the disk and RAM) are soldered onto the motherboard, meaning if any of them were to fail, the entire motherboard would require replacement. It’s far better to keep the base unit of a desktop PC and the monitor as two separate physical devices.
It’s also possible to get very very small PCs - one example is the Intel NUC range. They are so small you can mount them behind a monitor or TV, so they are very popular for space saving and as a Home Theatre PC (HTPC). When purchased new, they usually come without RAM or an SSD (you have to buy these and add them yourself usually, although some sellers like CCL Computers do offer a build service for them). This makes them a lot more expensive than a larger standard desktop PC.
Because they are so small, they actually use the same internal components as laptops to save space, so the advice in my Laptop Buyers Guide is more applicable than any advice in this article. Whilst they are great for space saving, you simply aren’t going to get the same level of performance from a mini PC as you would from a de-facto desktop mentioned elsewhere in this article.
Athlon, Ryzen 3 or Ryzen 5?
Just a brief note about the difference between processors. Have a look at the chart above (figures provided by https://www.cpubenchmark.net/ ). The most important elements to take note of are:
# of Physical Cores - ideally for light desktop usage, you want 2 cores and 4 threads, and for gaming or video editing, you want at least 4 cores and 4 threads. An Athlon 3000G has 2 cores and 4 threads, a Ryzen 3 3200G has 4 cores and 4 threads, and a Ryzen 5 3400G has 4 cores and 8 threads. There are more explainations of what this means here and here .
Single Thread rating is the speed at which each thread carries out tasks (higher is better). It’s worth noting here that a lot of basic desktop tasks only use one or two cores (and threads) at a time, whereas gaming, and certainly video editing, benefit from more cores and threads.
CPU Mark is the overall performance of the processor when all cores and threads are working together at maximum efficiency (higher is better) - the higher this number, the better performance is.
NB - I’ve compared AMD Ryzen processors above - the same broadly applies to Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors. I’ve chosen to focus on AMD as they currently offer much more for your money than their Intel equivalents.
Where to buy desktop PCs
When it comes to actually buying a desktop PC, there are a few options:
High Street Stores - such as Currys PC World and John Lewis . There are fewer brick and mortar stores selling PCs these days. Those that do sell all the major brands - such as Dell, Lenovo, HP etc. Generally, unlike laptops , most consumer grade desktop PCs are pretty well built. However, prices in high street stores can be a little over-inflated, with cheaper models coming with weaker processors, no SSD and 4GB RAM and machines with more desirable specifications being quite expensive. You’ll get more value for money if you explore some of the other options below.
Online Stores - such as CCL Computers and eBuyer .
CCL are a little bit different. They offer a wide range of base machines that can be custom-configured with various options depending on your budget. Then they build it in 10-11 days and deliver it (you can pay an extra fee for priority build if you need it more quickly). They charge £100 for Windows 10, so it is better to order without and get a key from sites such as TheUnitySoft , who sell cheaper keys, then install Windows 10 yourself once it is delivered. NB - If your old machine has a Windows 7 license key sticker, this key can often be used to activate Windows 10 on the new machine as well - you just enter it during the Windows 10 installation process when prompted.
eBuyer sells similar machines to high street stores, but usually at slightly cheaper prices as they have lower overheads. However, they also sell even cheaper machines that come without Windows 10 (such as the Xenta range). The build quality of Xenta is a bit lower than CCL or the more recognized brands however, and they only have a 1 year warranty as opposed to the 3 years offered by CCL or other main brands. Again, you can get a Windows 10 key from TheUnitySoft , as well as ordering additional components such as WiFi cards and hard drives for additional storage. However, unlike CCL, who will fit these once you send them your customised order, you will need to either add these additional components and install Windows 10 yourself, or contact Hither Green IT !
Build it yourself - this is the cheapest way to get a new desktop unit if you are feeling brave - it’s not rocket science, but you definitely need to be fairly confident in what you are doing. Generally you order all the individual components yourself then assemble it. Sites like PCPartPicker can help you put together a parts list that is checked for compatibility, as well as directing you to sellers with the most competitive price for each chosen component. You can also get Hither Green IT to build you a PC, but once you factor in parts and labour, it’s still usually cheaper to go for something from CCL or eBuyer and then get me to just add any additional hardware and install Windows 10.
The refurb route
One other alternative to buying a new machine is to go for an older, but still good, ex-office PC and then upgrade it with extra RAM and an SSD (and graphics/WiFi cards if required), as well as installing Windows 10 (a lot of them will come with Windows 10 already installed and activated, or at least a Windows 7 key on a sticker on the unit that can be used to activate Windows 10).
Bear in mind that the base unit would be second hand (but they are pretty durable so still generally have plenty of life left in them). The processors and components inside are usually about 7-8 years old - but should still hold up fine. They are designed to be left on most of the time in an office environment and so tend to be durable, long lasting and easy to service and repair. Two particularly good candidates for this route are the Dell Optiplex and HP Elite lines.
Of course, you could also buy a standard PC second hand online as well, but it’s important you get one in good condition, with good starting specifications. Bear in mind that office PCs are designed to be run for many more hours per year than consumer ones as well, so second hand office PCs will probably have more life left in them when compared to similar aged consumer counterparts.
I like this route as it saves old computers from landfill too.
Specifications to look out for in refurbished desktop PCs:
Processor: Intel Core i3/i5/i7 3rd generation or newer (you can tell generation from the first number, for example 3470, 4570 are 3rd and 4th generation respectively). Most machines will have Intel processors - AMD processors weren’t common in the office PC sector until relatively recently, and older AMD processors are much weaker than their Intel equivalents anyway (unlike more modern processors, where that trend is reversed and AMD is on top). The main thing is that the Intel processors inside these old office machines, if you get the right one, are usually pretty decent 4 core, 4 thread Intel i5s, somewhere between a modern Athlon 3000G and Ryzen 3 3200G.
RAM: as before, at least 8GB for basic desktop usage, at least 16GB for gaming and video editing - (if it has less, second hand RAM is cheap and easy to fit)
Disk: as before, you’ll want an SSD, at least 250GB and preferably 500GB or larger. Usually these ex-office machines come with old fashioned mechanical hard drives. You’ll definitely want to either replace this with an SSD or add an SSD alongside it (if you can fit both inside the case at once).
Graphics card: As these ex-office units almost all come with Intel processors, they will have an integrated graphics chip.
Integrated graphics chips are able to handle basic desktop usage and video playback without a problem, and can even often manage some light gaming and video editing as well (although older Intel processors have weaker graphics than the newer ones, and certainly weaker than Ryzen integrated Vega graphics). But, as before, if you want a machine for playing games and/or editing video, you will get a much better experience if you add a graphics card.
(NB - some ex-office PCs are “Small Form Factor”, meaning they have fairly low wattage power supplies and limited physical space inside the case. These require special “low-profile” graphics cards that are smaller, and use less power, than standard full size cards).
Generally a graphics card costs anywhere between £150-500 depending on the graphical power you want/need. Specific details and choices are beyond the scope of this article, and once you are at this level of requirements, it’s best to start to acquire your own technical knowledge anyway.
WiFi: as before, if you need WiFi, you need to make sure you have a decent WiFi card inside your machine, preferably one that is dual band and can handle good speeds (see my WiFi fundamentals blog article for more details about WiFi). However, if your desktop happens to be close enough to your main router, you can wire it up instead (which will provide a much better connection anyway).
Peripherals: as before, you can either use your old monitor, keyboard and mouse or choose to upgrade to newer ones.
Bear in mind that, after you make the upgrades above, an old office PC will basically be at its full potential. Most brand new Ryzen machines could be upgraded in the future with more powerful processers etc. But you do save money this way, and you end up with a fairly capable system.
Here are two examples of successfully turning an ex-office PC into a decent gaming system:
Where to buy refurbished business machines
Try to look for reputable sellers that offer a warranty and have plenty of good testimonials. If you work in a large office, it’s often worth checking with the IT department to see if they have any old ones they can give you or sell to you cheaply. Often they have been bought in bulk on a three year lease direct from the manufacturer, and every three years the office refreshes them and sells/dumps(!) the old ones even if they are in good condition.
As we saw in my Laptop Buyer’s Guide , Apple laptops are obviously extremely popular, but from a small IT repair business perspective, they are a nightmare. The picture is slightly different for their desktop machines, but unfortunately not much better.
These are Apple’s “all-in-one” lines of desktops (and have similar issues to the all-in-one PCs discussed above). iMacs specifically are also quite similar to Apple laptops, with similar flaws.
No serviceable components
Older iMacs (up until about the early 2010s) have a removable and replaceable standard 3.5” hard drive. They also have removable and replaceable RAM.
Accessing the RAM on these older iMacs is actually quite easy, as there is a removable access slot on the bottom that comes away once you remove two standard screws.
Accessing the hard drive is a little more tricky, as you have to remove the front glass (on older models this is held on with magnets). But once you have gained access, the 3.5” drive can be replaced with a 2.5” SSD (as long as you use an appropriate mounting method and connect a temperature sensor cable).
After the early 2010s, as with their laptops, Apple started to make the hard drive and RAM part of the logic board on iMacs (some models have replaceable hard drives but soldered on RAM, some have soldered on drives and replaceable RAM, and on some both are soldered onto the main board - a helpful way to find out details for each model is EveryMac.com’s excellent Ultimate Mac Lookup Tool ). They also replaced the magnets that hold the front glass on with glue - this means for any repairs this glue needs to be cut/melted, and then the display has to be reglued again after any repairs have been carried out. This is tiresome for a repair technician, especially as you have to do it for each and every repair.
To make matters even worse, more recently they have also added a T2 security chip , which locks out third party Apple repair shops. This means somebody like me cannot fix them at all.
The Mac Pro very much goes against Apple’s usual practices, in that it is extremely repairable and upgradeable (most components slide out and slide in easily). They come as a base unit that needs to be connected to an external monitor. However, brand new they are very expensive.
The first generations (2010-2012, sometimes known as the “cheesegrater” model) can be found fairly cheaply online, but they use a lot of electricity and are starting to show their age. I do sometimes upgrade these machines however, and they can just about keep up with modern requirements with a bit of TLC.
The second generation (2013-2018, sometimes know as the “trash can” model) is still expensive second hand, and generally not that highly regarded as their thermal design was quite poor.
The third generation came out in 2019 and returned to the “cheesegrater” style of the first generation. However, the base model starts at over £5,000 and a fully upgraded model costs upwards of £20,000. They are really aimed at high end professionals such as video and photo editors.
Mac Minis are Apple’s own version of the mini PCs that I mentioned earlier in this article. They are essentially just the internal components of a Macbook put into a different shaped case and without a display (you need to connect your own one up). It’s an attractive form factor, but all the same issues that we saw in the Laptop Buyers Guide (lack of servicable components etc.) apply equally to Mac Minis as well. And because the internal components are the same as Macbooks, they aren’t as powerful as iMacs or Mac Pros.
PC desktops are of course much cheaper and more easily repaired/upgraded compared to desktop Macs, but I totally appreciate that if you are used to the Apple eco-system and love it, switching to a PC would be a big switch to make. For me, I’m not sure it’s worth the increased cost and lack of upgradeability, however.
I really don’t want to be anti-Apple, but they make it very hard. Here’s a final insight into why they are such a problematic company:
UPDATE April 2021 - Since I originally wrote this article, Apple released a line of machines that use their own M1 ARM chips. For my thoughts on those, take a look at this article
Hopefully this article has helped you to understand what you need to look for when buying a desktop PC, as well as the various options on offer in terms of specification.
And as always, for further expert advice and upgrade services, contact Hither Green IT .