We'll be honest, we realize most students will buy a laptop to use at school and call it a day. But opting for a desktop instead isn't the craziest idea, especially if your needs extend beyond standard email-and-Netflixing. Having a more robust machine with a desktop-class processor and possibly more RAM and storage could make sense for both serious gamers as well students with creative hobbies, like photography, filmmaking or audio production. Depending on your budget, of course, you could still buy a laptop for taking notes in class, but you might even be able to get away with a cheaper device like a tablet and keyboard folio. For the purposes of this back-to-school guide, we selected five machines -- two Macs and three PCs -- including two systems built for gaming. Here's what we recommend.
Apple Mac Mini
Now that Apple has finally updated the Mac mini, it's a solid choice if you want a compact yet reasonably brawny desktop for the dorm room -- or just want the most affordable Mac you can get. This latest version is still small but packs a quad-core chip and a speedy SSD that should handle class projects (and some casual gaming) with ease. Just be sure to budget for a monitor and peripherals if you don't have them, and consider getting an external hard drive if you'd rather not pay Apple's premium for additional flash-based storage. -- Jon Fingas, Contributing Editor
Buy Mac Mini on Amazon - $750+
Apple iMac (21.5-inch, 4K Retina Display)
It's true that in this very guide we also recommend the Mac Mini, but that's really only for those who already have a monitor and keyboard laying around. The iMac costs more, but it wins on convenience and is no more expensive than most premium laptops. Though it starts at $1,099, we recommend stepping up to the $1,299 configuration for several reasons. For that price, you get a 4K Retina display (as opposed to 1080p) along with a discrete 2GB AMD Radeon Pro 555X GPU (as opposed to integrated graphics).
Unfortunately, both come standard with a traditional spinning 5,400 RPM hard drive, with an option to upgrade to a solid-state Fusion drive for $100. As annoying as it is that that's still not a standard feature across the line, this is one area where it's worth making an investment: We've tested both Fusion and non-Fusion iMacs, and you really can tell the difference. If money is no object, there's also the 27-inch iMac, which starts at $1,799, but we think the 21.5-inch model's size and price make it a better fit for most people (and dorm spaces). -- Dana Wollman, Editor-in-Chief
Buy iMac 4K Retina on Amazon - $1,299+
ASUS ROG STRIX GL12
It's not hard to find gaming desktops these days, but finding one that's been reliably overclocked out of the box is far rarer. The ASUS ROG STRIX GL12 sports Intel's Core i7-9900K running beyond 5GHz, paired together with NVIDIA's cream of the crop RTX 2080 Ti graphics card. There's also a unique RAID configuration for SSDs, for when you really need a speed boost. It's a solid investment if you're hoping to play the next four year's worth of triple-A games in 4K or just want a machine that's powerful enough to support your budding game-streaming career. As a bonus, it looks like it's survived a few scuffles with ninjas.
-- Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor
Buy ROG STRIX GL12 on Amazon - $2,700
Corsair One i140
If space is a problem in your dorm but you don't want to compromise on gaming power, the Corsair One i140 should fit the bill. It's a gaming beast with an eight-core Intel Core i7-9700K CPU, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 GPU, 32GB of DDR4-2666 RAM and a 480GB M.w NVMe SSD, but has a tiny compact form factor and weighs just 7.38kg (16 pounds). On top of that, it's very quiet, so it won't disturb you when studying, or bother your roommates during an intense Fortnite session. The drawbacks are the price ($3,000) and mediocre hard disk storage drive.
-- Steve Dent, Contributing Editor
HP Omen Obelisk 875
If you want a standout gaming PC for the dorm but would rather not get a custom-built box, HP's Omen Obelisk deserves a look. It touts a distinctive, compact design that could easily catch the eye of your dorm guests, but it's still fully upgradeable. And importantly, it can be as modest or beastly as you want it to be: You can get a system for casual games in between study sessions or a monster gaming rig that can handle virtually any modern title. Just be sure to consider systems from vendors like Maingear and Origin PC if you want something more frugal, or else have the money to burn on something even more powerful.-- J.F.
Buy HP Omen Obelisk on Amazon - $875+
HP Envy 27
HP's Envy 27 is an all-in-one PC with a gorgeous 27-inch Quad HD display, an array of Bang & Olufsen speakers and enough power to easily handle audio and video editing. It's ideal for design students and anyone else who needs a roomy display. The Envy 27 also packs in just about every port you'd need, including an HDMI-in connection, allowing you to use it as a secondary monitor (or just a stylish display for your game consoles). -- D.H.
Buy HP Envy 27 on Amazon - $1,600+