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Core Values: Leading-Edge Home Computers

Sixth-Generation Processors • Minicomputers Large Display Screens • Virtual-Reality-Ready Models—Also: Best Buys in Monitors &

Home-computer sales continue to fall in the United States. However, analysts say home computers still fill a role for those who want a large screen for their everyday computing tasks. The latest home computers have enough graphics power to handle new virtual-reality games and headsets.

iStockphoto/Apple

Previously, we reported that the home-computer market appeared to be hanging by a thread. If you look at the sales numbers today, the thread appears to be fraying. The NPD Group, which is a market-research company, says 4.7 million home computers were sold in the United States in 2015, compared with 5.4 million in 2014. NPD estimates that 4.1 million home computers will be sold in 2016.

We spoke with six industry experts, and all of them agree that home-computer sales continue to fall, because today’s notebook computers, tablet computers and smartphones are more powerful than ever before. The home-computer market typically sees an increase in sales when an operating system update is introduced. However, the summer 2015 debut of Microsoft Windows 10, which is considered widely to be the best and most secure Windows operating system, didn’t create a sales bump, NPD says.

However, all six experts also tell us that the preference for consumers to use a home computer’s large display screen to read emails, create documents, watch videos and play games will remain.

“The PC market is not going anywhere,” says Stephen Baker of NPD.

To that extent, every manufacturer now sells 21:9 widescreen-aspect monitors in all price ranges. Two years ago, only premium 21:9 monitors appeared on the market. The 21:9 aspect ratio provides 33 percent more screen width than does a standard 16:9 monitor. This means that you more easily can multitask with at least two windows open side by side on your desktop.

Speaking of display screens, Jennifer Colegrove of Touch Display Research tells us that 41 percent of all-in-one home computers now have a touch-screen display (starting at $730), compared with 30 percent of all-in-ones in 2014 (when models that had a touch-screen display cost at least $950). You also now can get a monitor that has 4K ultrahigh-definition resolution for as low as $700, and Baker says 4K monitors will be available in all price ranges by 2018.

NEW FORMS. Previously, we noted that manufacturers were shrinking the size of their home computers to make them more portable, like notebook computers, tablets and smartphones. Today, every manufacturer sells at least one minicomputer (starting at $400) that’s smaller than a hardcover book.

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In the past year, Archos, Asus, Beelink, Intel and Lenovo introduced minicomputers that are the size of a USB flash drive. They run Google’s Chrome OS (starting at $85) or the Windows 10 operating system (starting at $130) and plug into an HDMI port on a computer monitor or a high-definition TV. You typically connect a keyboard and mouse to these so-called stick models through the use of Bluetooth, a USB port or a wireless dongle. Stick minicomputers typically include an Intel Atom processor, which is the same processor that you typically find in tablets or economy notebook computers.

We found that stick minicomputers handle 1080p video without buffering, but they don’t have enough graphics power or memory to handle graphics-intensive games. The latest models have as much as 2GB of memory, but experts tell us that the next wave of stick computers, which will debut in the second half of 2016, will include 4GB of memory. That extra memory will help to boost overall performance, but you still will be short of the necessary performance for playing graphics-intensive games.

VIRTUAL REALITY. Manufacturers hope that the long-awaited arrival of wired virtual-reality (VR) headsets, which you connect to a computer and wear around your head to play and move in 3-D games, will inspire gamers to buy new VR-ready home computers. The first two computer-based VR headsets are HTC’s Vive ($799, which includes two wireless controllers) and Oculus’ Rift ($599, no controllers included). They went on sale to the public in March 2016.

To play VR games, you have to have a computer system that has an Intel fourth-generation Core i5-4590 processor or better, at least 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GTX 970/AMD R9 290 graphics card or better. Home-computer models that have these minimum specifications typically cost at least $1,200. (You can play VR games on a notebook computer, but only ultrapremium gaming models that cost at least $2,000 have the adequate minimum specifications to run the games smoothly.)