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Best PC 2021: Powerful, expandable desktop PCs from £449- save £100 on the Acer Aspire XC!

For power and future-proofing, a desktop PC is the best choice

The conventional desktop PC may not be sexy, but if you’ve got serious work to do – or serious games to play – it’s your best choice. With a desktop PC, you can take your pick of the most powerful processors and top-of-the-line graphics cards that simply won’t fit inside a laptop or an all-in-one design.

Desktop PCs are far more upgradable too: you can generally fit extra RAM, expand your storage, or add features like a Wi-Fi card – and if you don’t have a dedicated graphics card, you can add one at a later date with no fuss. You certainly can’t say that about a laptop.

Last, but not least, desktop PCs are great value. You can pay only for the components and capabilities you need, and with more than a dozen system-builders competing for your custom, prices are squeezed to the bone. Convinced? Of course you are. So read on for our guide to choosing the best desktop PC, plus our rundown of six systems that are, in our view, the very best on the market.

Save £100 on the Acer Aspire XC

Our favourite budget PC just got a whole lot more affordable. With a 1TB hard disk, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and USB-C connectivity, the Aspire XC is a very competent computer. What’s more, with a reduction of £100, it currently boasts especially good value for money.

Currys Was £499 Now £399 Buy Now

How to buy the best PC for you

Since desktop PCs are modular systems, you’re not limited to a small number of prebuilt designs. In many cases, if you find a PC that you like the look of, you can ask the supplier to fit more RAM, a bigger SSD, a better graphics card or what have you. First, though, you need to know what you’re looking for.

Which CPU?

When it comes to selecting a CPU, the choice is normally between one of AMD’s Ryzen processors and Intel’s Core i5 and i7 models. To be honest, any of these chips will be powerful enough to let you browse the web and dash off the odd document.

If you have greater ambitions – perhaps you want to make music, or edit your own photos – there are two things to look at. The clock speed of a processor in megahertz (MHz) gives a direct indication of how quickly it runs. Modern processors have a base speed and a “Turbo” speed that they ramp up to when there’s a lot of work to do. The higher the number, the faster the CPU can get things done.

Then there’s the question of cores. Most modern CPUs have at least four cores, which is plenty for everyday Windows applications – but others might have eight or more. Having more cores means the chip can do more things at the same time, so multitasking will be smoother. Additionally, some jobs, such as video editing, can be broken up into multiple threads that can be processed simultaneously; for these specific tasks, having more cores can speed up performance significantly.

Aside from different numbers of cores, some CPUs have technology that lets each core handle two threads at once. This isn’t as effective as having more physical cores, but it can give a boost for little extra cost.

READ NEXT: The best Intel and AMD CPUs available right now

How much RAM?

If you’re just running Windows 10 and a typical set of Office applications, you don’t need any more than 4GB. However, if you like to keep lots of tabs open in Chrome, edit large photos or work with huge databases, that may not suffice: the PC might need to fall back on the hard disk for temporary storage, and that will slow everything down.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, 8GB of RAM is a good working minimum, with some premium systems coming with 16GB. Don’t worry too much about that though: most desktop PCs come with two spare memory slots, so you can add more RAM later if need be.

READ NEXT: The best RAM kits you can buy

What about storage?

There are two basic types of storage: solid-state drives (SSDs) and traditional mechanical hard disks. SSDs are much faster, and allow Windows to run far more smoothly than an old-school hard disk. The very fastest SSDs slot directly into an M.2 connector on the motherboard, but even a regular SATA SSD will make your system feel a lot more responsive than a mechanical drive.

The catch is that SSDs are very expensive compared to mechanical drives – which is why today’s desktop systems typically feature a medium-sized SSD for you to install Windows and your applications on, partnered with a larger mechanical drive for your personal data files. We recommend you look for an SSD of at least 240GB, partnered with a data drive of 1TB or more – although the beauty of a desktop system is that you can normally install an additional drive later on if you need more storage.

Do I need a graphics card?

If you don’t want to play games, you might not need a graphics card: Intel and some AMD processors feature integrated GPUs, which are perfectly fine for desktop computing, even if you’re using multiple huge 4K monitors.

If you do want to play games, though – or if your chosen CPU lacks integrated graphics, like most of the Ryzen range – then you’ll need a graphics card. This is an area where you can spend a lot: Nvidia’s most powerful current-gen card, the GeForce RTX 3090, can cost £1,399 or more. Lesser cards like the RTX 2080 Super can still handle 4K, but the very best cards can easily cost more than a full system.

If you’re willing to compromise, something like the AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT or GeForce RTX 2060 will be powerful enough to play most games at Full HD resolution with high detail settings. If you go much lower than this, though, you might find the experience starts to suffer, and the card may struggle with the very latest generation of demanding games.

READ NEXT: The best graphics cards for 1080p and 4K gaming

Only connect

While some upgrades can go inside the desktop case, USB is more important than ever, so check that your chosen system has plenty of ports. Ideally you want plenty of fast USB 3.1 or USB 3 ports at the rear, perhaps along with a few USB 2 ports for the keyboard and mouse. Additional connectors at the front of the case are helpful for plugging in USB flash drives or connecting a phone.

Finally, check the number and type of audio and video connectors. If you have plenty of both, that makes it easy to hook up multiple monitors, and even a multi-channel sound system.

The best desktop PCs you can buy in 2020

1. Wired2Fire Ultima WS: The best-value PC

Price: £635 | Buy now from Wired2Fire

The Ultima WS is a highly capable home PC with hardware and performance well exceeding what you’d normally get at this price. King of it all is the Ryzen 5 3600 processor, which together with 16GB of RAM makes the Ultima WS a great productivity aid when dealing with large spreadsheets or editing photos and video. Even when merely browsing the web, that generous memory will let you lay on the tabs.

Another highlight is the gigantic 1TB SSD. While you shouldn’t usually try to get away with less capacity on a desktop, it’s fantastic that it’s all in the form of an SSD, and a fast NVMe one, too, rather than split between a slow HDD and a tiny master SSD just for Windows and a few key apps. This will ensure that whether you’re booting complex software or just moving some files around, the Ultima WS will remain snappy and responsive.

Key specs – Processor: 3.6GHz AMD Ryzen 5 3600; Maximum turbo speed: 4.2GHz; Cores/threads: 6/12; Graphics: Nvidia GT 720 2TB; RAM: 16GB DDR4; Supplied storage: 1TB SSD; Data connectors (rear): 4 x USB 2, 4 x USB 3, 1 x PS/2, Gigabit Ethernet, 3 x audio jack; Data connectors (front): 2 x USB 2, 1 x USB 3, 2 x audio jack; Video ports: 1 x DVI-D, 1 x HDMI, 1 x VGA; Dimensions (HWD): 410 x 175 x 385mm; Warranty: Five years labour including two years parts

Buy now from Wired2Fire

2. PC Specialist Magma R1: The best mid-range gaming PC

Price: £799 | Buy now from PC Specialist

Putting a lower-end CPU in a gaming rig like this might sound like madness, but the Ryzen 3 3100 manages to perform well above its station, in turn allowing the Magma R1 to succeed as a fine all-rounder.

Crucial to this is its graphics card, the XFX Radeon RX 5600 XT Thicc II Pro, which isn’t quite muscular enough for 4K but can breeze through 1080p and has a very respectable crack at high-quality 1440p, too. There’s little, if any, bottleneck from the quad-core processor and to top it all off there’s a well-balanced storage setup comprising both a fast SSD and a large hard disk.

Everything is contained within a smart-looking case, with a decent array of upgrade options for the future, and at a smidge under £800 it’s hard to go wrong. There’s even built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, though it uses the older 802.11n standard instead of 802.11ac.

Key specs – Processor: 3.6GHz AMD Ryzen 3 3100; Maximum turbo speed: 3.9GHz; Cores/threads: 4/8; Graphics: XFX Radeon RX 5600 XT Thicc II Pro 6GB; RAM: 16GB DDR4; Supplied storage: 256GB SSD, 1TB hard disk; Data connectors (rear): 2 x USB 2, 2 x USB 3, 2 x USB 3.1, 1x USB-C, 1 x PS/2 Gigabit Ethernet, 3 x audio jack; Data connectors (front): 2 x USB 2, 1 x USB 3, 2 x audio jack; Video ports: 1 x HDMI, 3 x DisplayPort; Dimensions (HWD): 458 x 208 x 400mm; Warranty: Three years labour, one year parts, one month collect and return

Buy now from PC Specialist

3. Chillblast Fusion Ryzen 3700X: The best home workstation PC

Price: £1,200 | Buy now from Chillblast

As a media editing system, the Chillblast Fusion Ryzen 3700X is close to perfect: it’s got an incredibly powerful, core-rich Ryzen CPU, enough RAM for smooth multitasking, a multi-card reader behind the hinged front panel, loads of storage space for large files and even a sound-dampened case that helps prevent the fan noise within from disturbing you while you work.

It’s also not too pricey, given its high-end specialisation. In truth it does take a couple of shortcuts to keep this affordable, like the use of a simple GTX 1650 Super graphics card instead of a GPU from Nvidia’s professional Quadro range, and while the 4TB hard disk is indeed gigantic, it’s worth adding a second one to set up a RAID array that can automatically back up your work.

Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of PC here for the money, especially considering that the other half of its storage configuration is a PCI-E 4.0 SSD. That means it can reach truly outstanding read speeds, exceeding 4,000MB/s in our tests. That’s just another smart touch that can help keep your productivity up.

Key specs – Processor: 3.6GHz AMD Ryzen 7 3700X; Maximum turbo speed: 4.4GHz; Cores/threads: 8/16; Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super 4GB; RAM: 16GB DDR4; Supplied storage: 250GB SSD, 4TB hard disk; Data connectors (rear): 2 x USB 2, 2 x USB 3, 4 x USB 3.1, 1 x PS/2, Gigabit Ethernet, 3 x audio jack; Data connectors (front): 2 x USB 2, 5 x USB 3, 1 x SD card, 1 x microSD, 1 x M2, 1 x Sony Memory Stick, 1 x CFI, 1x xD, 2 x audio jack; Video ports: 1 x HDMI, 3 x DisplayPort; Dimensions (HWD): 468 x 230 x 475mm; Warranty: Five years including two years collect and return

Buy now from Chillblast

4. Acer Aspire XC: The best budget PC

Price: £449 | Buy now from Currys

We first tested the Aspire XC just a few months ago, and since then it’s been upgraded from Intel’s 9th-gen processors to the latest 10th-gen parts. That means we can’t speak for this exact model’s performance, but the Core i5-9400 that its direct predecessor was built around was already a mighty powerful part for only £449, so it’s unlikely there’s anything to complain about.

Other than the CPU, the Aspire XC appears unchanged, and that’s no bad thing. It’s a lovely little desktop, compact enough to sit on your desk without taking up acres of space but not so cramped on the inside that you can’t add your own upgrades down the line, like an extra stick of RAM or even an M.2 SSD.

As it stands, you get a 1TB hard disk, which isn’t bad capacity-wise, though for just £30 more you could add an Intel Optane Memory drive to dramatically boost read speeds. Even without this, the Aspire XC is a very likeable budget PC, with extras like 802.11ac Wi-Fi and USB-C connectivity elevating it from bargain bin mediocrity.

Key specs – Processor: 2.9GHz Intel Core i5-10400; Maximum turbo speed: 4.3GHz; Cores/threads: 6/12; Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 630; RAM: 8GB DDR4; Supplied storage: 1TB hard disk; Data connectors (rear): 4 x USB 2, 2 x USB 3, Gigabit Ethernet, 3 x audio jack; Data connectors (front): 1 x USB 3, 1 x USB-C, 1x SD card, 2 x audio jack; Video ports: 2 x HDMI, 1 x VGA; Dimensions (HWD): 295 x 100 x 330mm; Warranty: One year carry-in

Buy now from Currys

5. AlphaBetaPC AMD Ryzen 7 Pro Gaming Desktop PC: The best premium gaming PC

Price: £1,849 | Buy now from AlphaBetaPC

Sometimes, if you’re going to buy a 4K gaming PC, you might as well go for broke. Not just in terms of core specs – though this rig does pair with a Ryzen 7 3800X with Nvidia’s RTX 2080 Super GPU – but in design as well.

The square, glass-panelled, RGB-laden AMD Ryzen 7 Pro Gaming Desktop PC is certainly an eye-catcher, but the powerful internals aren’t the only things that keep style balanced with substance. A neat upright storage rack adds lots of room for upgrades to the pre-installed SSD and hard disk, while the motherboard offers ample room for PCI-E additions. That said, there’s little need to add to the huge 32GB of RAM and Wi-Fi connectivity that come as standard.

We’d say keep an eye out for a potential RTX 3000 series upgrade, but the RTX 2080 Super is already a monster. In the famously GPU-sweating Metro: Last Light Redux benchmark, turning off SSAA was all it took to get a smooth 64fps at 4K even with all other settings at maximum.

Key specs – Processor: 3.9GHz AMD Ryzen 7 3800X; Maximum turbo speed: 4.5GHz; Cores/threads: 8/16; Graphics: Gigabyte GeForce RTX 2080 Super Windforce OC 8GB; RAM: 32GB DDR4; Supplied storage: 480GB SSD, 2TB hard disk; Data connectors (rear): 4 x USB 3, 1 x USB 3.1, 1 x USB-C, Gigabit Ethernet, 6 x audio jack; Data connectors (front): 2 x USB 2, 1 x USB 3, 2 x audio jack; Video ports: 1 x HDMI, 3 x DisplayPort; Dimensions (HWD): 480 x 290 x 380mm; Warranty: Three years RTB including 30 days collect and return

Buy now from AlphaBetaPC

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