This isn’t actually one of my picks.
Image: Devonyu, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The desktop computer has been at death’s door for, depending on who you ask, nigh on to a decade. It’s death hasn’t arrived, though, and it’s entirely likely that desktops will be around for years to come.

There’s probably a niche in your business, be it an enterprise or self-employment, for a desktop computer, particularly if you need high-powered hardware able to keep up with the intense demands of tasks like data science, video editing and design.

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This guide to the best desktops of 2021 makes recommendations based on the type of work role a desktop will fill. It’s also not going to force businesses to choose between a Mac or Windows machine: Recommendations for both are included.

The best basic workstation

Desktops don’t have to be large and unwieldy to be useful, and the average person doesn’t need a lot of high-powered hardware or expansion space for their day-to-day job. That’s where tiny desktop computers come in: They can do all the same work as a larger stationary PC/Mac, without taking up a lot of space on a cramped desk.

The Dell Optiplex 3090 Micro
Image: Dell

Windows PC users should direct their attention toward Dell’s Optiplex Micro line of computers, which start as low as $719 for an Intel i3, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD in a case that’s only 1.4″ x 7″ x 7.2″. The specs start off pretty basic (especially the Intel i3), but there’s no reason it won’t meet the needs of the average worker using cloud-hosted apps and other modern software for their daily tasks.

The Mac Mini with M1
Image: Apple

Mac shops will want to look to the Mac Mini, particularly the new model with the Apple M1 chip. With an 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core neural engine, 8GB RAM and 256 GB SSD, it matches the specs of the most basic Optiplex Micro in every area but its souped-up Apple Silicon chipset. The Mac Mini starts at $699, making it a bit cheaper than the Optiplex Micro as well.

The best desktop for creative professionals

The creative desktops in this list deviate a bit from the standard desktop form factor, and with good reason: They’re both the best options for those working on creative tasks like graphic design, video editing, sound production and similar projects.

The Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Microsoft News

Let’s start with the Microsoft Surface Studio 2, Microsoft’s entry into the flagship all-in-one form factor. At $3,499.99, the Surface Studio 2 likely won’t be on your list of computers for home, but businesses may want to snatch one up once they’re in stock again. The SS2 has a 28″ touchscreen, a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GPU (either a GTX 1060 or 1070), a 1TB SSD, an infinitely placeable “zero-gravity hinge” and supports the included Surface Pen and Surface Dial (Dial not included).

The new 2021 iMac
Image: Apple

One guess which Apple computer is landing in this category: It’s the new iMac with the M1 chip. Only available in 24″ (the 27″ iMac is still an Intel device), the new iMac with M1 starts at a significantly cheaper $1,299, but it sacrifices a bit: There’s no touchscreen or Apple Pencil support. Still, the M1 chip, 256GB SSD (up to 2TB) and 8GB RAM (up to 16GB) make it a powerful creative desktop for businesses and individuals who run Apple systems.

The best desktop for heavy computing tasks

Whether it’s data science, software development or some other resource-intensive task, modern computing has an increasingly specialized space for desktops that provide an absurd amount of processing power. That’s where these two desktops come in.

The Powerful Lenovo P920 desktop.
Image: Lenovo

The first, the Lenovo ThinkStation P920, starts at a very reasonable $2,783.42 for a computer with three NVIDIA GPUs, up to 1TB RAM and up to 28 Intel cores. The P920 is a beast, even at its introductory level, and also has a lot of room for easy expansion, so it might even last longer than some less serviceable desktops.

The Mac Pro, Apple’s top-of-the-line performance desktop.
Image: Apple

For Apple, the choice is a simple one: the recently redesigned Mac Pro. It has specs not unlike those of the P920, particularly the “up to 28 Intel cores” option; additionally, the Mac Pro can handle up to 1.5TB RAM, two MPX modules with up to 4GPUs, up to 8TB of SSD storage and eight PCIe expansion slots. The Mac Pro can also be outfitted with wheels or in a rack-mounted body, and its cover slides off in a single piece for easy access to its internal components. The near infinite potential of the Mac Pro comes at a cost, though: $5,999 to start.

The best budget desktop

There are a lot of reasons to get a cheap desktop: A depleted IT budget, freelancing with limited resources or you just want a barebones desktop that will do the basics without much fuss. For that I’m again veering out of desktop tower territory and into the land of all-in-ones with the HP All-in-One 22. AIO computers are the closest thing you can get to the simplicity of a laptop with a desktop-sized screen.

The budget-friendly HP All-in-One 22.
Image: HP

The HP AIO 22 has, unsurprisingly, a 22″ screen, an easily removed back panel for upgrading the internals, and otherwise uninspiring specs. That doesn’t matter, though: In terms of simplicity, ease of setup and basic functionality that will work for everyone, this is a solid choice considering it starts at just $499.99

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I’ve excluded an Apple desktop from this category for what’s likely an obvious reason: Apple desktops are expensive. That said, a budget pick would likely be the Mac Mini, which was already covered above. If you go that route, however, just know that you’ll need to put down additional money for a monitor, keyboard and mouse, making the Mac Mini much more expensive than the $699 introductory price. If you’re on a tight budget, a Mac may quickly exceed it with just the slightest of upgrades or most basic of peripherals.