With holiday time rapidly approaching, it's the time of year when many start hunting for a new PC. Whether for yourself or as a gift, there'll be deals to be had right through until January. A deal's only a deal if you know what you're getting though, so here are some handy tips when shopping for a PC.
The basics: know what you're looking for!
It sounds simple but it's often overlooked. Start by thinking about what you'll be using the new device for. The user who routinely games, produces videos or edits photos will require a very different machine to the user who only casually browses the web and writes emails.
You'll also need to consider any fixed feature requirements you may have. Are you looking for a desktop PC or a laptop? If it's the latter, you'll need to think about screen size and battery life, as well as all the other attributes mentioned in this guide. It's a good idea to try laptops in a store if at all possible – that keyboard which all the reviewers praised won't necessarily be the best fit for your hands.
We have a dedicated guide to the best laptops available this season, so make sure to read that if you're looking for recommendations of particular models. The above still applies though – just because we like it doesn't mean you will too.
For the purposes of this guide, its the internals that we're most interested in. New desktops and laptops have three headline specifications which you should be aware of: CPU (processor), RAM (memory) and storage (nowadays usually an SSD, but you may still find mechanical hard drives in low-end machines).
Picking a processor
The majority of off-the-shelf hardware currently uses Intel processors. The most common chips are the i3, i5 and i7 families. Some very high-end machines may have a top-tier i9 processor.
Performance and cost increase as you travel up the range. In general, a Core i5 is the sweet spot between performance and cost for most PC users. It will perform well in the majority of general-use applications, such as web browsing, light content creation and photo editing.
It can be counter-productive to buy a machine with a high-end processor if you're not sure you'll need the power, especially when purchasing a laptop. Increased performance comes at a cost: the i7 also has a higher power draw, so it can reduce battery life compared to devices with an i3 or i5.
After the processor, the next hardware item to consider is the memory. Memory (RAM) holds your running applications. Running out of RAM is one of the most common performance issues on low-end PCs. It causes effects such as web browser tabs reloading when you switch back to them, or delays when multitasking between apps.
All but the most budget devices now come with 4GB of RAM as standard, with most manufacturers adopting 8GB as the baseline for their entry-level models. We strongly discourage buying a new Windows 10 machine with less than 4GB of RAM.
It's advisable to choose 8GB whenever you have the choice – it gives your device more "breathing space" to handle running applications, providing more consistent performance. As the memory requirements of Windows and apps continue to grow, having more RAM will make your device more futureproof too.
Many high-end machines will come with 16GB or even 32GB of RAM. There's no downside to having large quantities of RAM, although at present the associated costs can be significant.
The final core system component to specify is the storage. You might see storage referred to in several ways. HDD (hard drive) and SSD (solid state drive) are the most common terms you'll come across. Either way, this is what all your files and data will be saved to.
An HDD is a traditional mechanical hard drive with spinning platters. They offer large storage capacities at low cost. SSDs are newer forms of storage device with no moving parts. They offer huge performance gains over HDDs, which make it quicker to copy files around and launch programs. However, cost-per-GB is still much higher than HDDs can offer.
Selecting a storage option is relatively simple. You just need to know the size of your files and then add a reasonable buffer to ensure you won't fill the space up anytime in the near future. You can check current storage usage in Windows by opening File Explorer, clicking "This PC" and looking at the blue bar under your storage drive.
Wherever possible, we'd advise opting for an SSD over an HDD. These are already standard across most mid- and high-end devices. The performance increase is discernible day-to-day, as programs launch faster and files move much more quickly.
Some devices, usually desktop PC towers, can be specced with an SSD and an HDD, allowing you to configure a small SSD for your system files and a large HDD for your own data. This gives you the best of both worlds, with the super-fast performance of SSDs for program launches and the low cost-per-GB of HDDs for your file storage.
CPU, memory and storage are the most vital components in any PC.
Consequently, we cannot provide a standard specification for every use – if we could, there wouldn't be a need for options in the first place!
This list contains some general specification recommendations for processor and memory.
- General-purpose user seeking a positive all-round PC experience that will continue to perform well for several years to come – i5/8GB
- Light or casual user who only infrequently uses their PC and typically only browses the web, views photos and writes emails/documents – i3/4GB
- Gamer, developer, professional, content creator – i7/16GB
Processor should be interpreted as an "or equivalent." AMD Ryzen processors are increasingly widely available within prebuilt PCs; the Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 roughly map to Intel's Core "i" line-up.
We are not recommending storage options because the capacity you'll require is very much determinate on your own usage of your device. We'd always advise SSD-based storage wherever possible.
When buying a PC, you also need to think about your existing devices. Make sure that whatever you're buying has enough ports for your connectivity needs.
Connectivity options are in a state of flux at the moment, as newer standards such as USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 start to get established. However, older technologies like USB-A (traditional USB) are still widely used, so most manufacturers aren't eradicating them entirely.
You should check what ports your device will come with as options currently vary wildly between different manufacturers. This is particularly important on laptops where the physical space constraints mean manufacturers have to make compromises on what's included.
Lower-end machines tend to come with a "traditional" selection of ports, such as multiple USB-A connectors, an HDMI port and 3.5mm audio. High-end devices are increasingly shipping without "legacy" ports in a quest to become ever-thinner and lighter.
Some manufacturers are going all-USB-C on their flagship laptops, which lets you use a single type of port for display, data and power connections. However, this means you'll currently need dongles and adapters to connect to existing keyboards, mice and monitors.
Your final decision to make is the operating system for your new device. This refers to the software which runs your PC; in most cases, it's going to be Windows 10 (after all, you are reading a Microsoft-centric news site...).
The vast majority of devices on the market today, with the notable exception of Apple products, run Windows 10. Most of these will be the base "Windows 10 Home" edition which should be adequate for almost all users.
You might find Windows 10 Pro is included with some high-end machines. This adds a few extra features aimed at professionals and developers. It's not worth paying extra for Windows 10 Pro unless you already know you need it.
You might still find some devices for sale with "Windows 10 S" preinstalled. This is a sandboxed edition of Windows 10 which can only run apps from the Microsoft Store.
It is possible to convert Windows 10 S into Windows 10 proper but a fee is normally required to do so. Windows 10 S was discontinued over 18 months ago, so any new devices shipping with it will be based on old hardware. We advise staying clear of any Windows 10 S device unless you're already familiar with the limitations of the platform.
Finally, we should acknowledge Windows isn't strictly your only choice of operating system. Apple's Mac devices ship with its own macOS software. Elsewhere, some vendors do sell devices which ship with Linux distros preinstalled, such as Dell's Ubuntu-powered "developer edition" Inspiron and XPS laptops.
You've selected your new device and got to checkout. Time to work your way through the bundles and upgrades which are forced into your face.
Especially when buying a new high-end laptop, it's likely you're going to need dongles and adapters (see above) to utilise all its modern ports. However, the first-party adapters sold on manufacturer websites can often be overpriced relative to products sold elsewhere. If you know you'll need dongles, we encourage looking for reputable third-party products first to make sure you're getting the best price.
Many retailers will also try to sell you bundled software, such as antivirus products. Remember that Windows 10 has antivirus built-in, which we've detailed in another article.
Windows Security accompanied by basic self-defence best practices is a viable antivirus solution. It should provide sufficient protection against common threats. Ultimately, it's your decision how you protect yourself on your device. You should always remember that even the best antivirus solution won't necessarily help when you click that email link that promises a free iPhone or an unclaimed lottery win.
Hopefully these pointers will help you in selecting a new device for yourself, your friends and your family. If you came here looking for something specific to search for, take a look at our holiday laptop buying guide for some concrete examples of what we've discussed here.