What to Look For in a New Desktop

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Upgradability: Case the Case and Motherboard

You will likely want to upgrade any computer you purchase, no matter what the specs are on the model you choose. With terabyte drives available today for $300, you might want to switch to the inevitable 1.5TB drives next year, or boost your 4GB of RAM to 16GB in 2010.

Make sure that you can answer the following questions about any desktop you purchase:

  • What's the maximum amount of RAM supported and in what configurations? (32GB across eight slots isn't unique.)
  • Can the optical drive be upgraded later? (See "Optical Drive" section below for more on this issue.)
  • How many internal hard-drive bays are built in? (If you opt for a RAID configuration, you may wind up maxing out the bays with your initial configuration.)
  • What sort of security measures can be overlaid on the case? (Port covers, locks with keys, and cable-lock slots are all options.)

Our verdict: Buy your computer today, but plan on needing, and choosing, an updated case and motherboard in a few years.

Optical Drive: Upgrade to Blu-ray Later

As DVD burners have become increasingly faster, there are fewer differentiating factors among them. You're primarily deciding between CD/DVD burning and CD/DVD/Blu-ray burning. (You can purchase a Blu-ray drive that plays video disks and read-only Blu-ray disks, but that seems like half a loaf.)

The latest generation of Blu-ray drives can burn 25GB or 50GB to a single disk. But the upgrade is pricey: Often $300 (HP) to $470 (Dell) to install a Blu-ray writer instead of a fast CD/DVD burner. Blank Blu-ray discs are ruinous: from $10 to $20 each for 25GB media and $35 to $50 each for 50GB media.

But with Blu-ray the winner in the high-definition video market, prices for both home players and PC drives will plummet this year, as will blank media, since users will buy such media in larger volumes. And most of us use hard drives for larger backups, anyway.

Our verdict: Wait for Blu-ray to become a $150-to-$200 upgrade, and for 50GB media to drop to $20. Optical drives in desktops are often a simple upgrade.

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