Buying Your First Desktop Computer

Updated on March 26, 2018
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John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, current welder and hobbyist game developer.

With mobile devices becoming more powerful, desktop computers aren't as important as we once thought they'd be. But they're still essential in some cases.
With mobile devices becoming more powerful, desktop computers aren't as important as we once thought they'd be. But they're still essential in some cases.

When Bill Gates famously said he wanted a computer on every desk and in every home, he may not envisaged a future where those computers came in the form of touchscreen devices smaller than an average book. The truth that may have surprised the tech pioneers of the 1980s is that fewer and fewer people consider a traditional computer necessary. For most of us, the ability to browse the web and check Facebook or YouTube is more than enough, and we can do that with our phones and tablets.

But there are still situations where a traditional computer—the kind that comes in a big box and requires a separate monitor and keyboard—is needed. And if you’re new to this world and need to buy one, it can be a bit daunting. But not to fear, this article will guide you through some of the different ways you can purchase a new computer, and what to look for when you do.

Why Do I Need a Computer?

Before we get into the how, let’s look at the why. There are a number of reasons you might need a full fat computer, whether it be for recreational or professional activities. The first thing you should consider, in my opinion, is heat. That’s right, temperature. Computers get hot when they work, and if your computer is going to be working for long periods of time, you want to shy away from smaller form factor options, such as laptops, and all-in-one solutions. It’s not a knock on this kind of device, it’s simply a trade off you have to make. If you want that smaller form factor, some performance benefits will be sacrificed.

Beyond that, the most likely reason you’re going to need a computer is power and compatibility. The power is self-explanatory. You can get more computing capability into a desktop tower case than you can in a phone, tablet, or laptop. If you’re doing anything intensive—gaming, video editing, and audio production to name a few—you’re going to need some horsepower under the hood. Which is not to say a decent Macbook can’t handle all of the above, but they’re relatively expensive compared to desktop systeem, and upgrade options are limited to say the least.

Some use-cases require considerable computing power, such as high end Computer Aided Design (CAD) work.
Some use-cases require considerable computing power, such as high end Computer Aided Design (CAD) work. | Source

The compatibility issue comes down to the operating system. Software companies have made great efforts to bring as much of computer functionality as they can to the little screens, but it is not the same experience. You can create some great images using an app on your iPhone, but that app will always fall short of what you can achieve on a desktop computer. Likewise, there are plenty of music creating apps and music looping apps available on the Google Play Store, but none of them come close to a fully featured DAW on a desktop computer.

Admittedly, part of the compatibility issue is interlinked with power. Developers aren’t making fully featured video editing apps for iOS because no iOS devices are capable of running one...yet. So if you want access to Adobe Premiere level features, you’ll need a desktop computer to run it on.

So you’ve decided you need a desktop computer. Maybe you have good reasons, maybe you just like the idea of having a big powerful computer on your desk. So what are your options? Let’s start simple.

Buying Off the Shelf

The most straightforward and obvious option is to just head out to an electronics store or browse to your favourite online retailer, pick a computer you like, and buy it. There’s nothing wrong with this option, and for most people this is the way it is done.

The main piece of advice I can give here is to shy away from budget computers unless you have a very good reason to buy one. Budget computers are often painfully underpowered, and will struggle if pushed to do much more than the basic tasks you might ask of your phone. If you’re buying a computer because you want to game or run some high-end software (or even mid-range software), budget computers are not the way to go.

There are a number of large retail stores that specialise in computers and computer-related products.
There are a number of large retail stores that specialise in computers and computer-related products. | Source

In fact, from personal experience of buying cheap computers can often result in being saddled with a machine that crashes inexplicably.

If you’re going to buy an off the shelf, be sure to do your own research before buying. Some big box retailers may have knowledgeable staff who can help you out, but you’ll often find that any store that isn’t specifically a tech retailer will employ people who don’t really know much more than your average customer.

The advantages here are obvious; you’re not bogged down with component-choice because the system is already built.

Buying Built to Order

Typically more of an online purchase, having your system built to order is a great way to get a customised machine that is tailored to your specific needs. Unfortunately, it will usually mean you’ll have to know a bit more about what components you will need. Do you need 3 terabytes of hard drive space? Is 8 gigabytes of RAM enough? Should you get a dedicated graphics card or will an onboard GPU be enough? These and more are all things you’ll need to consider, and each one could (and almost certainly does) have an article written solely on that matter.

The most common method of buying a system this way is through a “customise your computer” type interface on a manufacturer’s website, such as Dell. In this case, you would start off with a base system and then meticulously go through each component to choose from a number of options. This method makes things a little easier in that the base system—and subsequent options—will usually be geared to a particular kind of use case. So if you select a gaming computer, you should get a decent gaming computer regardless of the specific options you choose.

Should You Build or Buy a Gaming PC?

An alternative way to go about having a custom computer built is find a bootique computer retailer with a good reputation, explain to them what you want, and trust them to build the right computer for you. You’ll most likely be paying a little extra, but as long as the retailer is good at their job, you should get a machine that works for your needs.

It’s also worth noting that having a machine built to specification (or building your own, as we’ll look at next) is exclusively a PC thing. If you want to go Mac, you’re limited to the complete systems they offer.

Build Your Own Computer

As you might expect, this is the most involved way to go about buying a computer. There are advantages, of course, but you really do need to know what you’re doing. So if you’re knew to this kind of thing, you have a lot of research to do before you start buying parts. There are compatibility issues to consider. DDR3 RAM won’t work in a DDR4 motherboard, for example. There are different types of CPU that will only work in specific types of CPU slot. Beyond the more obvious compatibility issues, there are also many cases of particular hardware configurations just been plain buggy. Fortunately there are websites and communities that keep track of this kind of thing, and finding compatible hardware configurations is not as difficult (or expensive) as simple trial and error any more.

How to Build a PC! Step-by-Step

With the scary stuff out of the way, let’s look at the good side.

The first is price. You can search the market for the best deals, make informed hardware choices based on price… even buy second hand (though that comes with it’s own risks). You can literally spend as little (or as much) as you like. Be wary of just going for the biggest and best across the board, however (unless money is no object). Remember, it’s much easier to upgrade this kind of computer than a Mac or small form factor computer.

Another advantage to this way of buying a computer is that it will truly be your computer. And the satisfaction that comes having built something yourself is one of the few things in life that can’t be bought.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 John Bullock


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