My seven-year-old Dell desktop has died and I need urgently to buy a new PC. It is a family computer but I also use it for work, for processing photos that I take professionally, and creating photobooks. Otherwise, my husband has 333GB of music, and we have also have email and web-surfing needs. I’m looking to spend £800-ish. Please help, it’s a minefield out there. Sam
Buying a new desktop PC is one of today’s simpler computer problems. The main decisions are about size, speed, source and price, though not necessarily in that order. There aren’t any tough technology decisions, because we already know the best options. The main barrier is the ability, or willingness, to pay for them.
Size boils down to big or small. For a home-office machine, bigger is better. A tower system has more space for expansion, is easier to repair, and can use hotter, faster chips. You may not anticipate adding more memory, a second hard drive or a graphics card, but it’s great to have the option.
Speed will be as fast as you can afford, partly because a fast PC is likely to last longer, and changing to a new PC is not many people’s idea of a fun night in. This year, the standard processor for your purposes has been the Intel Core i5-7400, which offers the best performance in your price range, though eighth-gen chips are arriving now. Users who want to spend less can drop down to a Core i3-7100 or an Intel Pentium G4560, both of which are fast relative to their prices. But don’t try to save money on memory: 8GB is the minimum for a decent desktop.
When it comes to sourcing a new machine, UK users have two main options. They can buy from one of the big desktop PC suppliers – such as Dell, HP and Lenovo – or one of the smaller British companies, such as Chillblast, PC Specialist, Scan and Novatech. For more information, see my earlier answer, Should I buy my next desktop PC from a UK company?
I assume you bought your old Dell online. However, if your need is very urgent, then you may have to visit a computer store, or a retailer such as John Lewis or Currys PC World. Many shops now sell both “family” and gaming desktops.
Buying online should provide more configuration options, and better support deals. Sadly, Dell and HP have reduced the number of options on “normal” machines, so you can’t easily add extra memory or swap the DVD for a Blu-ray drive or upgrade the graphics card. If you want more choice, you may have to buy a games-oriented PC, such as a Dell Aurora, HP Omen or Lenovo Y520. If not, you may as well buy in a store, though you will miss out on any online promotions, coupons etc.
If you decide to buy from Dell online, the best value option is the Inspiron 3668 desktop. At the time of writing, this gets you a Core i5-7400 with 8GB of memory, an Nvidia GeForce GT 1030 graphics card with 2GB of memory, 128GB of SSD storage and a 1TB hard drive for £649 including delivery. That’s under budget, so you could consider adding three years of Premium Plus onsite service for £122.25.
Dell also sells an Inspiron 3268 desktop in a smaller tower. This has a Core i3-7100 with 8GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive for £449, but you lose the SSD, the graphics card and some expandability. Upgrading to a Core i5-7400 pushes the price up to £549, which is poor value compared to the bigger 3668.
Currys PC World has a lot of desktops within your price range. For example, you could get an HP Pavilion 570-p058na with a Core i5-7400, 8GB of memory, an AMD Radeon R5 435 graphics card, 128GB of SSD storage and a 3TB hard drive for £649 – the same price as the Inspiron 3668. This is a pretty well balanced system for your purposes. The graphics card is the weakest link, even compared to a GeForce GT-1030, but you won’t be using your PC for gaming.
Lenovo’s £649.99 offering is the Ideacentre 510-15IKL. This has a 2TB instead of a 3TB hard drive and no graphics card at all.
The Pavilion looks like the best deal, but shop around to see if you can find one with a better graphics card, or buy a machine where you can add one yourself.
Dell hell …
I took an unusual interest in Sam’s query because we are both into processing photos and creating photobooks, though I also do a bit of simple video editing. While she had a seven-year-old Dell that had died, I had a six-year-old Dell that was still going strong, but showing its age. Also, £800 is my sort of price. Researching her query might also answer mine.
I knocked up a small spreadsheet to compare the various specifications including less obvious ones, such as the number of USB 3 ports, the number of memory slots and free drive bays, and the size of the power supply. Dell has a lot of desktop brands for different markets including Inspiron, XPS, Vostro, OptiPlex and Aurora, and it’s hard to find the details. The secret is to use the online comparison feature, which does lay out the specs, albeit they’re not wholly consistent between machines.
In the end, of course, my deliberations counted for naught. Dell offered the £899 XPS desktop for £699 on Black Friday, and which of us can resist a bargain?
This is my third Dell desktop in a row. In April 2005 I bought a Dimension 8400 with a 3GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, a massive 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive, an LCD screen and 32-bit Windows XP Pro SP2. It cost me £1,090.17 (£1,147.74 including delivery), which seemed cheap at the time. Well, it was packed with new technology including a “hyperthreading” processor, PCi Express graphics, a SATA hard drive, and a DVD instead of a CD-Rom drive. See: The art of buying a desktop.
That machine ran very happily for six years, thanks to a memory upgrade and a new graphics card, the original being feeble. I replaced it in September 2011 with a Dell Vostro 460 MT running Windows 7 on a 3.3GHz Core i5-2500. This processor was a huge step forward, and it’s still pretty good. It’s faster than current chips such as Intel’s Core i7-8550U and Core i5-8350U, the difference being that they are 15W chips for thin laptops, where the i5-2500 is a 95W monster with a stonking great fan.
My Vostro 460 MT had 4GB of RAM, a GeForce GT 420 with its own gigabyte of memory, a 1TB hard drive, DVD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Pro for only £670.80. It still feels like a bargain, and could probably last another two or three years.
But it has already been treated to an extra 8GB of memory and a new hard drive, because the original failed. It could do with a new graphics card and an SSD, and its lack of any USB 3 ports makes copying very slow. Does it make sense to keep investing in an old war-horse when the money could go towards a faster and much quieter PC? No.
So, my latest Dell is an XPS 8930 with a six-core 2.8GHz i5-8400, 8GB of RAM, a GeForce GTX 1050Ti with 4GB of graphics memory, a 1TB hard drive accelerated with 16GB of Optane memory, a DVD drive and Microsoft Windows 10. The total came to £727.76.
The big difference is the speed of the processor, which has a PassMark score of 11,703. For comparison, the i5-2500 scored 6,303 and the Pentium 4 only 489, despite them all having much the same clock speed. Hard drives have got so big I no longer care: I only half filled the last one. And desktop PC prices are still very reasonable, especially if you amortise the cost over six years, 312 weeks, or maybe 15,000 hours.
Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com
This article contains affiliate links to products. Our journalism is independent and is never written to promote these products although we may earn a small commission if a reader makes a purchase.