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Family PC buying advice

How to buy a PC for your family home

The family PC is something of a dying breed, as most people now use portable PCs in the shape of laptops, tablets or smartphones. Here's how to buy a family PC.

There is still a market for old-style PC systems comprising separate tower chassis, monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers. The advantage of such systems are relatively low cost and the ability to upgrade the components piecemeal as the PC becomes out of date.

These PC systems need to be all-round performers for home and family use. Most are packaged with large flatscreen monitors suitable for work and play and all come with a keyboard and mouse.

In order to compete they need to show excellent build-quality, home-friendly design and useful accessories and peripherals that let you get started without having to buy any extras. A useful software bundle is also appreciated. If you’re not particularly technically-minded, you’ll also benefit from guided setup and installation help. See also: Group test: What's the best family PC

If you’re not itching to play the latest Windows games, you can save a lot of money by choosing a PC that has its graphics processor integrated into the CPU, rather than as a pricey dedicated card. Both AMD and Intel sell such processors. The performance is good enough for full-HD video playback and you’ll be able to play some games too if you keep the quality settings down to a reasonable level. At present, AMD has the lead in graphics in such combined chips, at the expense of regular system performance.

On the Intel side, expect to see a Core i3, i5 or i7 processor. The latest third generation of these (aka, Ivy Bridge) offers a modicum improvement over previous Sandy Bridge series; more so in graphics processing performance if you need to rely on it.

Intel’s new Core i5-3570K will form the core of a powerful home PC, even demanding tasks such as editing your own HD videos. It also comes with much improved integrated graphics.

The previous-generation Core i5-2500K is also a great performer and may be offered in systems with a competitive price. The ‘K’ suffix means the chip can be easily overclocked, provided that your motherboard supports this feature.

For occasional gaming or to accelerate video encoding, AMD’s Fusion chips have fast integrated graphics. The trade-off is a reduction in application performance.

It’s possible to augment graphics later, as an upgrade. For example, an AMD Radeon HD 6870 or nVidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti can provide ample performance without breaking the bank.

For memory and storage, consider 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive as the minimum required. Memory is relatively cheap at the moment, and 8GB or more can be affordably added.

If you want a PC for watching films and videos, listening to music and chatting with friends through Skype, a decent set of speakers is useful.

For larger rooms or simply a bigger sound, a 2.1 stereo set that incorporates a separate bass speaker or ‘subwoofer’ will perform better than a cheap 5.1-channel surround-sound setup. Many 5.1 speaker systems are abandoned with rear speakers left in the box: only invest in a surround setup if you’re sure you want to run more wires and boxes around the home.

Screen quality is crucial. Look out for in-plane switching (IPS) panels, which offer better colour fidelity than budget twisted-nematic (TN) monitors. These high-quality displays are seldom offered in review systems, but are well-worth seeking out as a custom option – especially if you’re into photography.

A good screen with decent viewing angles becomes essential when two or more people are viewing the screen at the same time.

Consider a full-HD 24in monitor rather than 21.5in or smaller model, especially if you’ll be using the PC like a media centre to watch DVDs or video. A Blu-ray drive is becoming a more affordable option, and the HD films it supports will make the most of your screen.

Listening to music or watching films is spoiled by a noisy PC. Quiet, sound dampened cases can drastically cut down on the noise produced by fans and drives. Good-quality CPU coolers can also help.

Beginners may find the automated setup process of systems from larger manufacturers such as HP and Packard Bell useful. This can help you configure your machine and get online. The down side of this hand-holding gesture is often a lot of unwanted preinstalled software (informally, ‘crapware’) that can slow down your PC. Beware of free trial anti-virus pre-installed too – it’s placement there is to entice you to pay for the full version, at which point the PC manufacturer gets a share of the profits. Choose Windows anti-virus based on its performance, not its commercial relationship with the PC brand.

In this shrinking market for desktop PCs, most of the ones you’ll see in magazines are assembled by small independent UK businesses. These UK vendors give the bare minimum of added software anyway, useful or otherwise. Their smaller bundle of software may include free open-source or obsolete versions of commercial programs.

Built-in wireless networking is useful if you need to site the PC in another room than your modem/router; as are wireless keyboards and mice that remove wires from your desk. Keyboards and mice quality is often overlooked but, as the primary physical interface between you and the PC, it pays to get high-quality, ergonomic components.

If you use your PC for music or like to sit back from the PC and watch the occasional video, a wireless keyboard with simple multimedia controls is a good halfway house between a desktop keyboard and a full remote control.

As a family PC, the system may be needed as a communications hub. To this end, a webcam is an essential asset.

Don’t forget to check the warranty terms, which vary greatly between PC vendors. Some offer a two- or even three-year warranty, but beware of small print that states parts- or labour-only. Or that you must pay to return the faulty product that you’ve been sold.

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