While many people are content with a smartphone and a tablet, sometimes a do-it-all desktop PC is just the ticket. We find the five best family PC systems from UK systems builders to find out what's the best family PC 2014. See all PC reviews and desktop PC buying advice.
Every Windows desktop PC in our round-up delivers decent all-round performance and value for money. We look for excellent build quality, a home-friendly design, and useful accessories and peripherals that let you quickly get the PC up and running out of the box. Preinstalled software is also appreciated.
A powerful CPU is a starting point for smooth, frustration-free operation but, unless you’re processing large amounts of video or running intensive applications, you don’t need the fastest available chip. In fact, you’re often better off with a lower-power chip, saving electricity and reducing noise. Most of the PCs reviewed here are a lot more powerful than you’d need for general-purpose use.
Intel’s Core series processors are now in their fourth generation, codenamed Haswell they can be identified by a leading ‘4’ in their extended part number – for example Core i3-4130. Haswell chips are an excellent choice for those who want a fast PC without sacrificing value, and the latest versions recently received a small 0.1GHz increase in clock frequency at no extra cost. Due to timing, only Chillblast was able to submit one of these new chips in time for review, but you can expect other vendors to follow suit.
Don’t be lead by Intel specs, though. Once you have enough system memory (RAM), it’s better to spend available budget on a solid-state drive (SSD) than the fastest CPU. A 120GB SSD will boost performance and boot times, while smaller-capacity, cheaper SSDs can be configured to act as a cache to accelerate hard drives via Intel’s smart-response technology (SRT).
Another alternative is to use an SSHD or hybrid drive, which uses spinning magnetic disk and flash storage in one device. These are slower than true SSDs, but deliver an increase in performance over a standard hard drive while maintaining large storage capacities.
With a separate SSD and HDD system, you’ll need to decide which files and applications to install on which drive. With a hybrid drive or SRT in place, you have one storage volume and can let the system manage how they are used automatically.
Some vendors will supply an Intel processor with a ‘K’ suffix, such as the Core i5-4670K. This means the chip can be overclocked, provided that your motherboard is compatible, and it also includes faster integrated graphics than the standard version of the processor.
With a Core i5-4670 or Core i5-4690, you’ll be able to play some of the less demanding games, without the need for a dedicated graphics card. Even cheaper Core i3 chips are fine for full-HD video.
If you want your PC to double as a gaming PC, an AMD Radeon R7 265 or nVidia GeForce GTX 750Ti graphics card would be a good choice. Adding around £115 to the total cost of your system, one of these will let you play most current games at high resolution.
The motherboard is also important, as this can determine how upgradable your PC will be, as well as the selection of ports and connections that are available. Most of the PCs here use motherboards based on Intel’s business-oriented B85 Express chipset. The Business chipsets often offer good value by omitting high-end performance-boosting features in favour of convenience and manageability at a lower cost.
All PCs here are preinstalled with Windows 8.1, but most vendors will install Windows 7 upon request.
Best family PCs: Peripherals
If you want a PC for watching films and video, listening to music and chatting with friends, decent speakers are essential. For larger rooms or simply a bigger sound, a 2.1 stereo set incorporates a separate bass speaker or ‘subwoofer’ and 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.) None of the PCs in this group test come with speakers, so you’ll have to buy them separately.
Screen quality is crucial. Look out for in-plane switching (IPS) panels, which offer better colour fidelity than budget twisted-nematic (TN) monitors. High-quality IPS displays are now much more affordable and the improvement in quality is such that all users, with the possible exception of gamers, should aim for one whenever possible. Rarer MVA and PVA displays also feature IPS?like technologies and deliver similar performance.
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 films.
A Blu-ray drive is finally an affordable option, and the HD films it supports can make the most of your screen. Listening to music or watching films is spoiled by a noisy system, though.
Sound-dampened cases can drastically cut down on the noise produced by fans and drives. Better yet, use quieter fans and solid?state storage. Good-quality CPU coolers can help. Better systems approach the challenge with lower-power processors and passive rather than active cooling strategies.
Beginners may find the automated setup process of PCs from big-name manufacturers useful. This can help you configure your machine and get online. The down side can be a lot of unwanted preinstalled software, which may even slow down your computer.
Finally, don’t forget to check the warranty terms. A free collect?and-return service can save a lot of hassle and expense should you need to send such a large item back for repair.
Best family PCs: Conclusion
With the exception of the tiny, monitor-less Quiet PC UltraNUC Pro XL, there’s little to distinguish between these family PCs at first glance. Three of them use identical Zalman Z3 Plus system cases and two even use the same motherboard. The Intel Core i5-4670 appears in three out of the six PCs, with an upgraded Core i5-4970 present in another. However, with systems ranging from £590 to £859 there are plenty of key differences.
If space is your prime consideration, you may prefer the Quiet PC UltraNUC Pro XL. It may be the least powerful of the whole group, but it’s ideal for most home-computing needs other than gaming. It also operates very quietly and consumes far less energy than any full-size PCs. This option is one of the least expensive, too, even after you factor in paying for a monitor.
The three similar-looking PCs from Chillblast, Mesh and Wired2Fire are all great systems with the same build quality, but they all look like gaming PCs due to identical large system cases with transparent side panels.
Wired2Fire’s Diablo Reactor is the least expensive of the three by £131 and delivers excellent gaming results, but it comes with a lower-quality TN display and crucially lacks a solid-state or hybrid drive. This glaring omission will have a large impact on performance and responsiveness. We believe that having some kind of flash storage or flash-accelerated storage now is a must.
Mesh’s Elite 4670 – PCA offers an impressive specification with a roomy 2TB hard drive and 16GB of RAM. It delivers convincing gaming results, but has a lower-quality TN monitor and lacks a Blu-ray drive.
Of the three, Chillblast’s Fusion Pharaoh offers the best measured performance, being the first in our lab to feature a slightly speedbumped Haswell processor. Expect other PC vendors to soon follow suit. The Fusion Pharaoh also features the fastest graphics card and comes with 16GB memory, a Blu-ray drive and a high-quality IPS monitor. With a two-year collect-and-return warranty, it has to be the pick of these three gamer-oriented systems.
Arbico’s Family i3 4185 looks like great value for money at £675 and includes an SSD as well as a traditional hard disk. Its Core i3 processor and lower-spec graphics card may leave it looking slower in the performance department but, in truth, is all the power you need from a family PC. Specifying this Arbico system without the included graphics card may improve its value further.
These are all good PCs, but there’s one criticism we’d level at all of them with the exception of the Quiet PC. They’re still all too powerful and too expensive. If your level of gaming doesn’t extend much beyond the odd game of Candy Crush Saga you don’t need to bump up the price of your PC by more than £100 to add a graphics card.
Best family PCs: How we test
Using the new FutureMark PCMark 8 v2.0 benchmarking suite, results are divided into Home, Creative, Work and Storage.
The Home benchmark reflects command tasks for typical home use with lower computing requirements such as web browsing, writing, photo editing and video chat, as well as low-end gaming.
The Creative benchmark is aimed more at enthusiasts and professionals working with multimedia and entertainment content. This test is more demanding on the processor and includes taxing transcoding components.
The Work test is geared towards office work tasks such as creating documents, web browsing and video conferencing.
For easy comparison with previous group tests, we’ve also included scores from our previous benchmarking suite, PCMark 7, this test suite uses 25 workloads to measure areas such as storage, computation, image and video manipulation, and gaming.
A full-size desktop PC would typically score between 3000 and 7000 points with current hardware and the compact systems on test this month perform equally well.
Best family PCs: Gaming performance
A family PC should be able to run most modern games at lower resolutions and quality settings. We use Sniper Elite V2 and Alien vs Predator to test each PC’s graphics capabilities. Sniper Elite V2 is configured with Low quality settings at a resolution of 1280x720, followed by Medium and Ultra quality full-HD settings (1920x1080), while Alien vs Predator is run at Maximum quality and measured at both these resolutions.
Best family PCs: Subjective assessment
We also pay close attention to each PC’s noise output and build quality, delving inside the case and taking note of the quality of components, cabling and airflow. Good-quality peripherals are assessed, if supplied.
Best family PCs: Support
Differences in warranty terms can impact our scoring. Long warranties and good customer support are always preferred, but we also look each system’s terms and conditions – specifically, whether faulty systems must be returned to the vendor at your own cost and if both parts and labour are included.
Best family PCs: What's the best family PC?
5. Quiet PC UltraNUC Pro XL
£590 inc VAT
The Quiet PC UltraNUC Pro XL makes it a great choice if you don’t have space for a full-sized PC and is ideal if you plan to use your TV as a monitor. Performance is fine for most everyday tasks except gaming, and it runs quietly with minimal power consumption.
4. Mesh Elite 4670 – PCA
£799 inc VAT
The Mesh Elite 4670 – PCA is a strong performer in a category where we don’t need to be really that bothered about performance. It’s reasonably priced and flexible enough to be put to just about any use, including gaming, but we feel it’s outclassed by Chillblast’s Fusion Pharaoh at the same price. And that’s assuming you’d want to spend nearly £800 on either of them in the first place.
3. Arbico Family i3 4185
£675 inc VAT
The Arbico Family i3 4185 doesn’t go overboard with processor or graphics performance, but offers a complete system with a balanced set of features at a modest price. While not fast, it’s speedy enough for day-to-day use and even a bit of gaming. The only spanner in the works is its faster, more powerful competition.
2. Chillblast Fusion Pharaoh
£799 inc VAT
The Chillblast Fusion Pharaoh is an excellent PC and offers tremendous value for money, but it’s possibly too expensive for a family system unless the speed and gaming are a necessity. In addition to its best-in-class performance, this PC offers stand-out features such as Wi-Fi, an IPS display and a Blu-ray drive for HD films.
1. Wired2Fire Diablo Reactor
£668 inc VAT
The Diablo Reactor is priced so competitively, it’s hard to recommend any other choice. This PC offers a high-speed processor, along with the best graphics performance of the group and decent entry-level peripherals. However, it still lacks a solid-state drive.