#parent | #kids | Best computers in 2021: Which desktop PC alternative is right for you?


We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of The Great Work From Home Experiment. A lot of people thought they could muddle through a few months of WFH using an old PC. Now, however, it looks like working from home is going to be an important part of our lives even after those office buildings slowly and cautiously reopen.

Also: Laptops we love: Most ZDNet writers prefer this notebook above all others

Which means a lot of people have been asking me lately about the best way to replace their aging desktop tower PC with a newer model.

A colleague from Southern California (let’s call him Bob) emailed last week with some questions along that line. He’s been using a traditional desktop tower, and he wanted some help choosing a replacement. He’d selected a Dell tower PC and wanted my opinion on the configuration and the price.

To be honest, I was fairly startled when he sent me detailed specs for the PC he wants to replace. The CPU and motherboard are 2007-vintage parts, as evidenced by his inability to expand RAM beyond 4 GB. And although his tech guy had replaced the original spinning hard disk with a solid-state drive a few years back, there’s not much else that can be done to improve performance. With a fan that’s beginning to make ominous sounds, it’s time to retire this device.

For Bob, I began by asking three questions.

Are you sure you want another desktop tower?

Especially among people who are more, shall we say, experienced, there’s a common belief that traditional desktop towers are the most economical PC alternative, especially compared to laptops. That might have been true at one time, but any price differential mostly vanished years ago as laptops became the most popular form factor for consumers and small businesses. Economies of scale have driven the cost of manufacturing a laptop down dramatically, and these days the premium for a laptop is relatively small.

How big is your workspace?

Let’s face it: Desktop towers are big. So big you usually have to keep them under the desk, where you can stub your toe on a sharp metal edge just by sitting down. Those towers also contain fans that tend to suck in dust and deposit it on the interior components. Unfortunately, those fans are also capable of generating annoying whining noises. If your goal is to have a full-sized monitor, keyboard, and mouse available at your desk, there are space-friendly alternatives to those giant towers.

What kind of expansion capabilities do you really need?

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Expandability and repairability were, once upon a time, the overwhelming advantages of desktop form factors. When price-per-gigabyte storage costs were plummeting, the idea of swapping out your hard drive for a bigger one every year or two was compelling: 160 GB of disk space turned to 500 GB and then to multiple terabytes. Likewise, the idea of upgrading to the newest, fastest graphics card was (and still is) appealing to gamers, graphics professionals, and other performance-obsessed PC owners.

But those advantages have become less important over time for mainstream productivity usage. Most of your files are in the cloud now, and prices for good-sized SSDs have dropped enough that the fast storage that comes with a new PC will be adequate for the life of the device. Likewise, the onboard graphics in Intel’s CPUs are good enough for most mainstream applications these days. (Again, gamers and graphics professionals are the exception to this rule.)

If you go to your local Costco or Best Buy and peruse the PC department, you’ll find mostly tower PCs and laptops. Bob’s first instinct was to replace his old tower with a new one. Unplug every external connection, move the new tower into the space vacated by the old one, and plug everything back in. That works, but it’s not the only way to solve the problem.

Instead of reflexively replacing a big old PC with an equally massive new one, why not choose one of these four alternatives?

Laptop with docking station

These days, most new laptops offer reasonable expansion options, including ports where you can plug in an HDMI cable and a USB device or two. With a big external display and a wireless keyboard and mouse, that’s all you need to turn a laptop into a desktop PC, although you can create a much more capable work environment by adding a USB Type-C docking station. (For a rundown of all your options, see Your work from home hardware dilemma: Desktop or laptop with docking station?)

In most cases, you can keep the laptop’s lid closed and pretend it’s just an extremely flat desktop PC. But if you have spare desk space, there are several good reasons to keep it open. For starters, you can use its built-in display as a second monitor to keep your Slack app running on the side as you write or crunch numbers on the main display. You can use the laptop’s built-in webcam for video conferencing, and sign in without a password using Windows Hello facial recognition or a built-in fingerprint reader.

Adding a docking station makes the price tag higher than you would pay for a desktop PC, but you might actually save money (and avoid the hassles of syncing two devices) if you need to keep a laptop in addition to your desktop.

Also: Buy the laptop best for you: Windows 10 or MacOS, plus 10 more things to consider

The lightest premium laptop around

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Image: HP Inc

With a starting weight under 2.2 pounds, this is one of the thinnest, lightest notebook PCs we’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t skimp on features or performance. It includes options for Windows Hello facial recognition and fingerprint sign-in as well as 4G connectivity, and its 360-degree hinge can shape-shift into any configuration including tablet, tent, and media modes.

$1,699 at Amazon

$1,816 at Walmart

$1,749 at Best Buy

Best budget PC

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Although you can buy this lightweight laptop in a minimal configuration with a 10th Gen Core i5 CPU for as little as $550, we recommend spending an extra $100 to upgrade to 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. Add a Surface Dock 2 ($170) to add extra ports and support up to two external 4K displays plus Gigabit Ethernet.

$522 at Walmart

$550 at Best Buy

All-in-one

What if your desktop PC was completely invisible, embedded in the same case as the display?

That’s the promise of the all-in-one PC, which embeds the system components in the same frame that holds the display. If you pair this with a wireless keyboard and mouse, you get to deal with a single power cord instead of the massive tangle of wires and power strips that a traditional tower typically attracts.

This is the perfect choice for anyone whose inner Marie Kondo insists that the home computing environment should spark joy and not attract dust. It’s an especially attractive option for a PC that’s going to be used in a public space where high design is important, like an art gallery or a design studio.

The disadvantage of this form factor is that it scores low on the factors that make tower PCs so attractive: expandability and repairability. The former is less of an issue now that virtually all expansion options are available using USB Type-C. But the potential cost of a repair bill is higher when the display and the PC guts are in the same tightly engineered cabinet.

The best-looking all-in-one, by far

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All of the big Windows PC makers offer all-in-one options for consumers and businesses, but for this category my default choice is Apple’s iMac. If you’re a graphics professional with very deep pockets, you can spend 5 grand on the iMac Pro, but for most home offices the 21-5-inch (starting at $1099) and 27-inch ($1799 and up) options will be adequate.

$1,149 at Back Market

Small form factor desktop

If a traditional tower PC is too big, maybe the solution is to shrink it slightly. That’s the defining characteristic of small form factor (SFF) PCs. Internally, they’re similar to their bigger tower cousins, with PCI slots for low profile video adapters and connections for storage devices, but most of the internal breathing room has been removed in the interest of making the cabinet as small as possible. And they still have a full complement of external ports

You don’t need to hide an SFF desktop under a desk. Instead, they’re small enough to fit on the desk and are often designed to be oriented either vertically or horizontally.

This class of PCs has been around for a long time, with designs and management features that are usually intended for big corporate deployments. You won’t typically find them in retail outlets. Instead, you need to look on the business side of the websites for leading OEMs:

This category makes sense if you want to make efficient use of space without losing the PCI expansion slots that are available in a desktop tower. Just be aware that those slots will only accept half-height cards.

Micro form factor desktop (aka NUC)

Technically, you could argue that this category is a subset of the SFF group. These PCs are, after all, small. Very small. But there’s a big difference that sets this group apart from their larger brethren. Instead of shrinking a tower by using a standard-sized motherboard and low profile components, micro PCs typically use laptop components engineered into a case that doesn’t have to concern itself with batteries and displays and keyboards.

The original micro PC is Apple’s Mac Mini, which stuffs an entire desktop computer into a well-engineered, small, square package. The latest incarnation is 7.7 inches on each side and 1.4 inches tall.

On the PC side, there are plenty of options in this class, including some that are considerably smaller than the Mac Mini. The best known is a class of super small PCs that Intel introduced in 2013, called Next Unit of Computing, or NUC. The latest NUC models are roughly 4.5 inches on either side and just under 1.5 inches deep.

Despite their small size, there are very few compromises inside these tiny devices. You can get big PC performance with a box that can sit unobtrusively on a desk or mount to the back of a display, out of sight. You can upgrade/replace memory and storage (in an M.2 format) but those tiny cabinets include no expansion slots, which means video upgrades aren’t on the menu. 

It’s pronounced like “truck”

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When it was introduced in 2013, Intel’s miniature PC was a curiosity primarily intended for special use cases like home theater installations. Now it’s an entire product line, available fully configured or in barebones kits and suitable for everything from workstations to servers.

$339 at Amazon


VIEW NOW AT INTEL

Build your own ultra-tiny PC

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We’re startled by how small and light this PC is, at 7 inches wide, 3.5 inches deep, and just over 1 pound. The base configuration is powerful enough at $450, but you can upgrade memory and storage to 16 GB and 1 TB, respectively, and take the price tag up well over $1300.

$699 at Amazon


VIEW NOW AT LENOVO



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