Upgrade or Buy New? Find the Desktop PC That's Right for You

The holiday season is here again, and with it comes that nagging urge to stock up on the latest and greatest techno-baubles. But while you're sizing up that massive HDTV or fussing over tablet specs, don't forget about your trusty PC.

Sure, it still boots up. But if your machine is more than a few years old, there's a good chance its ill-equipped to tackle the latest and greatest media, games, and software that are available. If you're tired of choppy YouTube clips, spreadsheets that take ages to load, or being limited to Minesweeper and Solitaire, it may be time to consider an upgrade.

That doesn't mean you have to toss your old hardware to the curb. Chances are, you're just a refreshed component away from breathing new life into a perfectly serviceable PC.

Clean Out the Crud

If your applications are starting to feel a little sluggish, you might just need a bit of a tune-up. A few simple troubleshooting steps can clean up a very slow PC, particularly if you suspect viruses or malware might be at fault.

Another option is to start from scratch. Reinstalling your operating system will bring your PC back its pristine state, before applications and the like have had a chance to muck up the works. Our guide to reinstalling Windows with minimal hassle will make that process as painless as possible, without sacrificing any of your data.

Sometimes, the best approach is to make a fresh start. If your needs are meager, making upgrades to existing hardware (or improving an inexpensive purchase) can be the most cost-effective way to get exactly as much machine as you want. We'll show you how to choose the machine (or make the right upgrades) that will get you on your way.

Mastering the Basics

If your computing needs are limited to sending out e-mail messages, editing text, and watching high-definition video--whether streamed from a Website like YouTube or Netflix or from a DVD--you have a wide range of options, and a range of price points to choose from.

When shopping for a PC to take care of your office productivity needs, feel free to temper your expectations. PCs equipped with a lower-tier dual-core CPU will suite your needs just fine: look for a desktop equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor, or Athlon II and Phenom II processors bearing AMD's Vision badge (as opposed to Vision Premium, or Black).

If your computing needs are light, you can opt for a machine with only 2GB of RAM, but you'll generally want at least 4GB, to keep your applications running smoothly. As far as storage is concerned, consider how you plan to use the machine, and budget accordingly. Large hard drives have become fairly inexpensive, but if you don't have a vast collection of music and photos, a smaller, cheaper drive won't be much of a setback.

All-in-one desktops have been incredibly popular this year, and are a compelling option for shoppers with modest needs. Consider HP's Touchsmart 310. This PC sports a 2.5GHz Athlon X4 615e CPU, 6GB of DDR3 RAM, and a capacious 1TB hard drive. It earned a score of 94 on our WorldBench 6 suite of tests, which is a fairly good score for the category, and shows it's more than capable of handling a bevy of productivity tasks.

Keep in mind that all-in-ones are generally pricier than typical desktops. While the Touchsmart 310 comes equipped with a 20-inch multitouch display and notable extras like a built-in TV tuner and HP's Touchsmart software, the model we reviewed cost just over $1100.

If you've already got a display of your own and are looking to spend a lot less, consider eMachines' ER1402-05. This compact PC sells for a scant $300, but manages to pack a fair amount of performance at its palatable price. It's powered by a 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 processor and 2GB of DDR3 memory, and an admittedly puny 160GB hard drive. While small in stature (and storage), the ER1402 eked out a WorldBench 6 score of 62--not quite a category leader, but speedy enough to make short work of simpler tasks.

Gearing Up for Gaming

PC gaming has come a long way since Doom, and hardware requirements have scaled exponentially. But contrary to popular belief, you don't need to break the bank to play modern PC games; you just need to make the right hardware decisions. The aforementioned HP Touchsmart 310 and eMachines ER1402-05 are both saddled with integrated graphics, which is just fine for watching HD video and playing browser-based flash offerings, but you'll be woefully unprepared to tackle complex 3D gaming. Both machines failed to post playable frame rates on our Unreal Tournament 3 benchmark--and that particular game is already fairly old.

Game developers generally list their title's system requirements: the bare minimum you'll need to get the game working. For Starcraft II and World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Blizzard recommends that PCs be equipped with a dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 512MB Nvidia or AMD graphics card. You won't be able to crank up all of the bells and whistles, but you'll be ready to see all the best that Blizzard has to offer.

Alas, the bare minimum won't really make for a very pleasant gaming experience. And you'll be out of luck if titles that are a bit more strenuous strike your fancy. If you'd like to spruce up your existing PC, the most important upgrade decision you can make for gaming will be to choose the right discrete graphics card. Currently, our favorite midrange graphics cards are AMD's recently launched Radeon HD 6850 and 6870, part of its new Radeon HD 6800 series.These cards will set you back $180 and $240, respectively, but offer an excellent price-to-performance ratio, and are very power-efficient.

An inexpensive quad-core processor won't hurt either, as modern games have made great strides in taking advantage of multiple cores. AMD even offers a six-core processor for as little as $300. It doesn't compete at the same level as Intel's $1000, six-core juggernaut, but you'd be hard pressed to beat the price. Be sure to check out our our guide to the best modern CPUs to see how processors across a range of price points stack up, in both general and gaming performance. This will help you make an informed decision when you're checking out a variety of desktops. If you choose to upgrade your PC's processor yourself, check out our guide to building your own PC, for help with the upgrade process.

If you're looking for an inexpensive new PC to gear up for gaming, consider a model like Acer's Aspire M3400. This budget desktop earned a score of 110 on our WorldBench 6 benchmarks, and can be had for about $600. It offers a quad-core 2.8GHz Phenom II X4 820 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a 640GB hard drive. The M3400's game performance isn't too impressive, due largely to its aging Radeon HD 5450 graphics card. But there's a bit of space inside the chassis, so you'll be able to upgrade to something a bit more substantial without too much effort.

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