Best desktop PC for 2021

Laptops and tablets make up about 80 percent of the PC market, but that still means one out of every five computers sold is a good old-fashioned desktop. And why not? If you want more power and expandability, or if you already spend your day tethered to a big-screen monitor, a desktop PC makes a lot of sense. These days, a desktop is generally going to be either a tower or an all-in-one (with an integrated screen), though there are smaller designs available for tighter spaces. In addition to Windows and Macs available for as little as $500 to $700, there are also options for Chrome and Linux fans, too. 

While laptops still occupy the bulk of our time and effort when it comes to hands-on reviews, we’ve pulled together some of our favorite recent desktop products below. The list starts with models we’ve tested, and then moves on to more generic configurations. We haven’t explicitly tested those specific models in the latter batch, but the specs listed should deliver considerable value for the price, based on our experience with similarly configured laptops we’ve tested. Unless otherwise indicated, the products listed below don’t include a monitor, keyboard, mouse or webcam. You’ll need to bring your own or purchase them separately. 

Desktop PCs: Tested and recommended

These are desktop computers that we’ve recently tested and can recommend based on our hands-on experience.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

If you’re looking for the most affordable Mac out there, the news is good nearly all around. Apple’s smallest desktop computer was among the first to get upgraded to the lightning-fast M1 processor, which runs rings around comparable Intel-powered Macs in terms of speed and performance. Unlike MacBook laptops, the Mini boasts legacy ports like USB-A and HDMI, too. The 256GB and 512GB models will run you $699 and $899, respectively, at the Apple Store, but the good news is that they’re now frequently on sale at other retailers for $50 to $100 less. More and more Mac apps are adding compatibility for the M1 platform, and Apple’s Rosetta 2 software runs most legacy apps in a fairly speedy compatibility mode, but if you still want native Intel support, a Core i5 version of the Mini remains in the line for $1,099.

Read our hands-on experience with the 2020 M1 Mac lineup.

 

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This Windows take on the basic iMac design hit stores in early 2020, and it shows in its somewhat dated specs (a ninth-gen Intel CPU and a spinning hard drive backing up the 256GB SSD). That said, you get a gigantic 32-inch 4K display powered by an integrated Nvidia GTX 1650 video card (which can handle some decent games) in a reasonably attractive package. We’d like to see a refresh with newer internals, but in the meantime, you’d be hard-pressed to find an all-in-one with a bigger screen. 

Read our HP Envy 32 All-in-One review.

 

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What if the iMac had support for touchscreen and stylus input? That’s basically the pitch for Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2, a Windows-powered all-in-one that seals the deal for artists with its ability to tilt the 28-inch screen back like a drafting table. The original model was woefully underpowered, and the latest model still doesn’t deliver all the bells and whistles we’d expect at this lofty price, but its unique design may have you overlooking those flaws and reaching for your credit card anyway.

Read our Microsoft Surface Studio 2 review.

 

Other recommended desktop PCs

We haven’t reviewed the specific models below, but we have reviewed systems using very similar hardware. These general configurations should serve you well, especially if you shop around for frequent deals.

Basic Windows PC tower (starting around $550)

The specs we’d suggest for a basic Windows 10 machine:

  • Intel Core i5 (9th or 10th generation) or AMD Ryzen 5 (3000 or 5000 series)
  • Default integrated graphics (such as Intel 630 or baseline AMD Radeon)
  • 512GB or larger NVMe SSD drive
  • 12GB of RAM or more (16GB preferred)
  • Four or more USB 3.1 / 3.2 ports with USB-C and USB-A formats (at least one or two on the front)
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless
  • At least one PCI-E (x16) expansion slot (for adding a video card)
  • A DVD or Blu-ray optical drive (if you need it for legacy software or media)

With those specs in mind, you should be able to find a good PC tower from brands like Dell, Acer, Asus or HP for between $500 and $600. Here are some that fit the bill, offering a great bang for the buck if you don’t need a laptop:

Acer TC-895-UA92 ($550)
This 10th-gen Intel Core i5 configuration includes everything listed above, along with Wi-Fi 6 compatibility and a keyboard and mouse, too. 


HP Pavilion Desktop TP01-1140 ($634)
This system offers a capable AMD Ryzen 5 CPU, and HP throws in a mouse and keyboard.


PC tower for light gaming and creative duties (starting around $900)

Want to do some gaming, or do you spend time editing photos or video? You’ll want to level up the above configuration with more RAM and better graphics options. Expect price points to be between $800 and $1,200 — and even higher if you go for a more bleeding-edge video card.

  • Nvidia GTX/RTX or AMD Radeon RX graphics card (GPU)
  • 16GB of RAM or more
  • 350-watt (or more) power supply

Looking for gaming or creative PCs with more muscle? Check out our list of best gaming PCs.

HP Pavilion Gaming Desktop TG01-1076z ($900)
This HP rig boasts an AMD Ryzen 5 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 GPU, a 400-watt power supply, 16GB of RAM and tosses a 1TB spinning hard drive on top of the 512GB SSD. Base price is $900, but we’ve seen it on sale for as low as $750.


Dell G5 gaming tower ($750)

This Dell model has nearly the same specs as the HP above, but with a 10th-gen Intel Core i5 in place of the AMD Ryzen. We’d previously seen this for as much as $1,050, but it appears to be selling for closer to $750 at the time this was published.


Basic Windows All-in-One (starts around $700)

An “all-in-one PC” (also known as AIO PC) is basically a Windows version of an iMac. That means the PC “guts” are essentially built into a monitor or its base. Unlike the PC towers listed above, all-in-ones generally offer no ability to upgrade the graphics card, and maybe not even the storage or RAM. The advantage is having fewer cables, however, since everything is integrated into the body.

Recommended specs for an all-in-one are mostly similar to the basic tower above, albeit with compromises because of space considerations. Don’t expect an optical drive, for instance, and know that performance is often a step down from “real” desktop models because some all-in-ones use laptop components to better maximize available space. You’ll want a large screen with good resolution. The sweet spots we’d suggest are:

  • 24 inches at 1,920×1,080 (aka 2K or 1080p)
  • 27 inches at 2,560×1,440 (aka 1440p)
  • 32 inches at 3,840×2,160 (aka 4K)

The 24-inchers are good for kids, but adults should probably go for 27 inches and up. Expect to pay at least $800 at that latter size, especially if you want to avoid underpowered Intel Core i3 or AMD Athlon CPUs. The Surface Studio 2, HP Envy 32 (above) and Apple iMacs (below) are examples of high end all-in-one computers, but here’s a more reasonably priced alternative.

Acer Aspire C27-962-UA91 ($800)
While the screen on this model is a spacious 27 inches, resolution is only 1080p (also known as 2K) — but that’s par for the course below the $1,000 price point. This model also lacks a DVD drive and USB-C ports. That said, you get a 10th-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, on-board Nvidia MX graphics (not as good of GTX or RTX card, but better than average), half a terabyte of SSD storage and a built-in webcam (along with a keyboard and mouse).


What about an iMac or Mac Pro?

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The current iMacs still run Intel chips. Faster M1 versions are on the way, and worth waiting for most people.


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While you’re paying a big premium for the Apple name, an iMac is generally a great option for Apple fans who want an all-in-one computer with a superior display. That said, we’re waiting for upgrades that will, at the very least, add M1 (or better) Apple silicon chips to these models and may also bring a redesign. So hold off on considering an iMac until those rumored upgrades are announced. They’ll very likely be coming before the end of 2021. If you must get an iMac in the meantime, avoid the baseline model with the 21.5-inch screen — it’s got a comparatively low-res screen (2K vs. 4K resolution) and an aging seventh-gen Intel processor. Note, too, the iMac Pro has just been discontinued by Apple.

As for the Mac Pro: It offers serious workstation-level performance, but with an entry price point of $6,000, it’s effectively for pro users only. Meanwhile, the hardware — which debuted in late 2019 — runs on an Intel platform, which Apple is now moving away from with its aforementioned Apple silicon chips. Here, too, rumors of a “Mac Pro Mini” (Apple silicon CPU inside a smaller chassis with fewer, if any, internal expansion slots) mean that waiting is the prudent option here, as Apple has pledged to complete its transition away from Intel before the end of 2022.

Chromebox, Mini PCs and other niche options

When it comes to desktop PCs, towers and all-in-ones represent the vast majority of the market. There are alternatives, but in the 2020s, they generally represent increasingly narrow slices of that market.

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Left to right: The HP Mini, Acer Revo, Intel Compute Stick and Apple Mac Mini. The Mac is the only one that’s been recently updated.


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Mini PCs: Following the debut of the Mac Mini in 2005, Windows PC makers experimented with similarly tiny designs. In the wake of likable small models like the Acer Revo One and HP Pavilion Mini, we even saw (woefully underpowered) “PC on a stick” offerings starting in 2015, but interest seems to have ebbed since then. Outside of specialty vendors like Beelink, the best choices in this mini PC size are probably the Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing), most of which are sold as hobbyist options, requiring some BYO additions like user-supplied storage, RAM and other components — including the operating system. See more bare-bones Mini PCs at Newegg

Chromeboxes: If you’re looking for very basic computing — browsing the web, email, social media, YouTube and the like — the Chrome operating system is the most affordable route for home computing. This Google operating system effectively is little more than the Chrome web browser. That makes it easy for multiple users (only a Gmail address is needed to log in), and — because there’s no heavy operating system beyond the browser — viruses aren’t really an issue. Colloquially known as “Chromeboxes” (versus a “Chromebook” laptop), these systems don’t have beefy CPUs, RAM or storage requirements. That said, if you need any software beyond browser-based web apps, or if you don’t have excellent broadband, you’ll want to stick with Windows or Mac options above. Expect to pay between $200 and $500 for a Chrome-based desktop. But the closer you get to that $500 price point, the more you should consider stepping up to a Chromebook laptop or a basic Windows tower (see above) for just a bit more. See Chromebox options at Amazon

Linux PCs: No, Windows, Mac and ChromeOS are not your only operating system options. There’s a wide world of Linux operating systems out there, many of which are effectively free. You can get PCs with Linux preinstalled, but the better, more affordable option is probably installing it (or dual-booting) on a used Windows PC. Another option is the Endless Mission PCs, which cost between $79 and $229 and run a custom Linux-based OS. 

Raspberry Pi: You may have heard of a small computer that’s no bigger than a paperback book, and can be had for about $150. That’s the Raspberry Pi, and it’s 100 percent real and very cool — if you’re a hobbyist looking to build your own Lego-style computer and install your own custom Linux operating systems. We just wouldn’t recommend it as a primary computer if you’re looking to run mainstream software. See the Raspberry Pi 4 kit at Amazon