You all should remember the time where having a PC was becoming mandatory. Emails, documents, and even printing something, it was normal for every household to have a PC plugged to the wall. Hardware forums proliferated as the knowledge of building desktop PCs was becoming a requisite, and if you couldn’t afford one, Internet Café (and their variations) would welcome you with open arms and a few pennies.
As of today, these venues are no more. The old Desktop PC, that one big box that sits in your room or office, barely justifies its existence now. It’s not that it has been forgotten, but rather, replaced by other machines, namely smartphones, tablets and laptops.
If you plan to buy a PC to only play games, get a console or get a doctor.
Today, the same questions I asked to my friends to build a PC, that where looking forward to, have now lost meaning.
It’s not about what desktop PC they want to build, but rather, if they even need one at all.
1. Do you require a desktop PC?
Desktop PCs are synonymous of sedentarism, but not in a unhealthy way. It’s about trying to shove the most performant hardware regardless of size and weight. Today, most of the content creation you see on the Internet is done in front of this form factor: from a well-produced video on YouTube to the Boston Dynamics dog software. PC are used for people who create software, content, or research, so if the user qualifies into a “creator”, it may need one.
There may be software (and hardware) that is bound to the PC ecosystem, like development tools or audiovisual hardware. While this doesn’t mean you can’t do the same on an iPad or a Linux machine, a PC with Windows will make your workflow faster as most tools are compatible with Microsoft’s desktop operating system, which is one of the most used on the world — at least, on desktop and laptops.
Outside demanding workflows, there is little to say. For doing office tasks, you don’t need a PC, specially considering you may interact more with web apps than anything else. The undisputed king of tablets, the iPad, can offer very simple (and intuitive) interface to do most of the office work, as long you don’t demand multi-software complex computing from it. iPads are very restrictive about their hardware, if you consider they only have one USB-C port, and like to work under the Apple ecosystem, but they have been steadily opening it up to make the average professional workloads possible. Have caution and be 100% sure the iPad fills your needs.
If you plan to buy a PC to only play games, get a console or get a doctor. Trying to buy a PC to play games, even as secondary function, will break your bank and offer diminishing returns in both experience and performance. Compared to other competing platforms, PC Gaming machines are not relevant anymore, so don’t waste your time.
2. Do you have a large budget?
Budget is always a problem on all technology-related decisions, and for desktop PCs, this has become more than a problem in the recent years thanks to the crypto-mining and chip shortage.
If your budget is low, you won’t find good machines that come without some cut corners. For example, you may find a machine with a very good CPU, but sacrificing the RAM size, the storage options, or even be left with Intel integrated GPUs. You may find really good deals, but nothing to write home about.
Currently, Chromebooks and iPads are most preferable options to consider if you can’t get a desktop PC with a monitor and some decent peripherals. Both of these are cheap compared to a full-sized desktop PC, and can offer average performance for web-browsing and entertainment. An iPad with a bluetooth keyboard can do wonders on small places, and some models can work decently with a secondary display.
There are some All-In-One in the market that can help you having a PC with Windows (or Linux in some cases) in exchange of poor longevity, zero expansion slots, big-but-average screen, sound, or very few USB ports. Mostly will depend on the specifications and price.
3. Are you tech savvy?
If the user that will use the PC is not somebody who can even know what is its current monitor native resolution, you may want to NOT build a PC, but rather, buy a pre-built system.
The big problem with building a PC for somebody else is that you’re bound to become the tech support for the machine, perpetually. You will not want become free tech support, even for family or friends. You won’t gift a car to somebody who can’t drive, even if he knows that cars go places, unless you want to be their chauffeur.
Instead, go for a walk inside a retail store if you can with your victim, or look online. On the Internet you may find sites from respectable companies willing to sell pre-built machines, with some slight window for configuration. Some will offer you a flat fee for building the PC for you, like on Redux.
Most retail machines will offer extended warranty and support, in exchange for some additional money. In other words, you will be able to contact people which job is to help diagnose and repair the machine, saving you headaches. While no tech-support is infallible, at least you won’t need to attend calls from your cousin at 3 AM because Fortnite suddenly became slow.
4. Do you need portability?
This part will vary from person-to-person. Some users will need a machine to be with them most of the time, and make any place their office. For these people, having a functioning PC without a wall plug for some hours makes them very productive. Imagine a photographer that needs to send a preview to a client: there is a huge difference between sending a couple of photos during the photoshoot, than seeing them next day just to do the photoshoot all over again.
When portability is key, then the Macbook Air or Macbook Pro are unmatched, hands down. You may want to get them as long you’re not bound to any software that works exclusively on Windows or Linux. There is a site that may help you check if a niche app doesn’t work on the new M1 chip.
An alternative may be an iPad (or iPad Pro) with a Magic Keyboard or similar setups, especially for people who can’t discern between a bit and a byte, but need something convenient as a tablet and with keyboard compatibility. Just be cautious of the Apple ecosystem that usually gets in the way, like trying to edit a photo from Google Drive.
Otherwise, when portability is just an afterthought, you may want to check small PC cases for some offers as the mini-ITX form is considered an enthusiast market. While big PC cases are mass produced and can be found for cheap prices, moving a full-tower will break someone’s back in the long run.
5. Do you plan to upgrade?
If you plan to constantly inject money into a PC to keep it “top of the line”, then there is no other alternative. The only place that can withhold the test of time is the PC. Additionally, most of the hardware can be re-sold and re-used, so the used hardware market is a very good alternative as long you don’t let your guard down.
This type of flexibility is not without care planning. You don’t buy pieces considering their longevity — getting something to work for years — but for what works good now. For example, you may buy 4GB of RAM today, and upgrade to 16GB tomorrow if you feel you’re behind on what is acceptable performance for your applications.
If this is not what you plan, specially considering how fragile can become the occidental economy, then you burn all the cash you can and never look back. In that regard, there is no excuse for choosing a desktop PC. You may well get any other platform that is not “upgradeable”. It doesn’t mean you cant upgrade a PC, but since you already spent your cash on top hardware, some upgrades won’t be as perceptible as others.
In the age of machines with powerful SoC, like the Apple M1, there is no argument to avoid them, in whatever flavor you like: iMac, Macbook, Mac Mini, or even an iPad. Obviously, there are some competitors and some powerful Windows-based laptops, but sometimes the price isn’t right.
It may look that I’m an Apple shill, but it’s difficult to make a case against Cupertino’s machines when they offer so much for a very competitive pricing. Desktop PCs were old beasts that once plagued the land. They were a necessity for what now can be done today with a flick of finger.
It’s difficult to recommend someone a desktop PC when they can get better computing products around the corner. While someone may miss the desktop PC format, nothing compares to having a device you can bring up from your bag and show to somebody for almost any task.