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Family PCs buying advice 2013

Here's what you need to know when buying a Family PC

Family PCs buying advice

If you’re not itching to play the latest Windows games, you can save money on a Family PC that uses integrated rather than dedicated graphics. Such chips are capable of playing full-HD video, plus recent games at moderate detail settings. However, all the systems in our group test feature dedicated graphics, which should enable playable framerates at higher screen resolutions.

See Group test: What's the best family PC?

Core components

A powerful processor is a good starting point for smooth, frustration-free performance. But unless you’re processing large amounts of video or running industrial-strength applications, such as the full version of Photoshop, you don’t need the fastest chip available.

Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips, such as the Core i5-3570, are an excellent choice for those who want a fast PC without sacrificing value. For a family PC, any extra cash in your budget will be better spent on an SSD or upgrading the memory rather than stepping up to a faster CPU.

Some vendors supply a core i5-3570K processor. The ‘K’ suffix means the chip can be overclocked, provided that your motherboard is compatible. The i5-3570K also offers faster integrated graphics than the i5-3570, so it’s a good choice if you’re not investing in a graphics card. It will add around £10 to the price of your system.

AMD’s Bulldozer chips, such as the 4.2GHz FX-4170 selected by CyberPower, can also offer very good value for money. For occasional gaming or to accelerate video encoding, AMD’s Fusion chips offer faster integrated graphics. The trade-off is a reduction
in application performance.

You can always upgrade the graphics setup later, of course, and an AMD Radeon HD 7770 or nVidia equivalent graphics card would enable satisfying gaming at a reasonable price.

The mainboard used in your system is also important. In some cases, newer processors will work with older motherboards. Some of the systems reviewed here combine Ivy Bridge processors with the budget Intel H61 Express chipset, while others use the newer and more capable B75 Express or Z77 Express chipsets. The choice of chipset will determine the features of your mainboard.

Although additional capabilities can be incorporated by the mainboard manufacturer, an H61-based system is unlikely to support 6Gbps SATA and may come without USB 3.0. Both these features are built into the B75 Express and Z77 Express chipsets. The latter will also support processor overclocking, Raid and Intel Smart Response Technology, which can accelerate hard drives by using an SSD as cache.

All the PCs featured here are preinstalled with Windows 8. However, if you’re buying a system running Windows 7 and hope to upgrade later, it’s worth checking your motherboard has Windows 8 certification. Microsoft maintains a list at tinyurl.com/99wanpp.

For memory and storage requirements, consider 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive as the bare minimum. All the systems here have at least 8GB of memory.

Peripherals

If you want a PC for watching films and video, listening to music and chatting with friends, a decent speaker set is essential.

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 setup. (Note that the ‘5’ refers to the number of speakers, while the ‘.1’ refers to the subwoofer.)

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 family systems (only Chillblast and PC Specialist provide them here), but are well worth seeking out – especially if you’re into photography.

A good screen with decent viewing angles becomes crucial when two or more people are viewing the screen at the same time. Consider a 23- or 24in full-HD monitor rather than a 21.5in model, especially if you’ll be using the PC to watch DVDs or video.

A Blu-ray drive is finally 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, though.

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 PCs from larger manufacturers useful. This can help you configure your machine and get online. The down side of this hand-holding gesture can be a lot of unwanted preinstalled software that can slow down your PC, but many UK vendors now bundle the bare minimum.

Built-in wireless networking is useful if the PC won’t be positioned next to your router, as are wireless keyboards and mice that remove unsightly cable clutter from the desk. The quality of these peripherals can often be overlooked but, as the primary interface between you and the PC, it pays to get decent input devices.

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. You may also be expected to pay to return the faulty product.

Conclusion

Family PCs come in all shapes and sizes, and at a range of price points. You can narrow down your choice by first deciding whether you’ll be spending a significant amount of time playing games: if so, look to the Eclipse or PC Specialist for around double the gaming performance of any other system in our round-up.

The Eclipse is the more enthusiast-friendly of the two, with support for overclocking, but it has a smaller-capacity SSD and an inferior monitor. Meanwhile, the PC Specialist also offers Wi-Fi and a set of external speakers.

If your budget is smaller, the YoYoTech keeps down costs by omitting a monitor and speakers. If you are looking to upgrade an older system and already have a display, this eight-core PC costs just £658. Alternatively, the £40 dearer CyberPower trades some of this speed and SSD capacity for a screen.

Chillblast’s Intel Core i5-3570K-based Fusion Lynx offers a great deal in return for your £799 outlay. With stellar performance, a large-capacity SSD and a very good-quality IPS display, it represents excellent value for money. The Chillblast is also covered by a two-year collect-and-return warranty. We awarded it our Best Buy in this group.

If you place a strong feature set and a useful box of peripherals before sheer speed, CyberPower’s less expensive and newly revamped Ultra Scylla SE may be all you need. It won our Recommended award.

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