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Desktop Computing Recommendations for Penn: 2021-2022

Information Systems & Computing (ISC), in consultation with the Penn community, annually publishes recommendations for desktop computers. These recommendations reflect institutional and industry trends but do not necessarily consider the computing requirements of particular Schools, departments, or Centers.

Before making purchasing decisions, administrators, faculty, and staff should always consult with their local IT support organization in their School or Center to ensure fulfillment of local requirements. IT support organizations consider local costs and operational requirements and are responsible for ensuring that functionality with University-wide systems is maintained as necessary.

Students should consult with their School's computing department for recommendations for individually owned computers.

General information

Key considerations for this year

Further overall movement away from desktops

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a second wave of movement from desktop systems to notebook systems, following the initial wave in the mid-2000s. The University's overall installed base was already about 70% notebook/30% desktop in FY2019. Now, it is likely at least 80% notebook, though this is unevenly distributed. While this document continues to outline Desktop Recommendations, the related Notebook Purchasing Guide is more relevant to most University constituents.

Continuing fulfillment issues

ISC expects continuing delays in client hardware fulfillment, with the major contributing factor being logistical issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which causes LCD, integrated circuit, and microprocessor shortages. Though various entities at Penn are working to manage these shortages, they will manifest themselves in many cases as both restricted availability and extended lead times for technology products relevant to the University and its constituents. ISC suggests planning for purchases with a more extended time window than usual. Also, where possible, notify others in the supply chain of your purchasing plans.

Apple's move from Intel to Apple Silicon

Apple's move from Intel microprocessors to their own silicon marks a substantial change for macOS users, and the current M1-based systems are now considered appropriate choices for the University's Mac users who are buying in those product classes. However, these Macs are not suitable for all potential University Mac purchasers. Many will find their low- to mid-range positioning limiting—RAM maxes out at 16 GB and no discrete video cards are available. For users who need more capable or flexible systems, Intel-based Macs remain an approved choice. ISC anticpates substantially increased Apple Silicon-based product options over calendar 2021—and ISC expects to notably change its guidance in this area.

Collaborative purchasing initiative

A collaborative purchasing initiative around institutional buying of Windows desktops and notebooks at Penn continues. The University has obtained advantageous volume pricing on commonly chosen configurations, lowering both acquisition cost and total cost of ownership (TCO). Dell OptiPlex desktops and Dell Latitude notebooks can be purchased with this pricing through the Dell Premier Page and the Penn Marketplace punchout environment.

End of support for macOS High Sierra

Effective July 1, 2021, macOS High Sierra (10.13.x) is no longer supported. Please refer to the Operating System Life Cycles charts for ISC's current support of and long-term guidance on operating systems.

Desktop recommendations for general use

ISC's recommended configurations for new systems are below. Estimated prices are effective June 1, 2021, and are based on small form factor or all-in-one Dell OptiPlex (Windows) systems with a three-year next-day warranty and small form factor Apple Mac mini or all-in-one Apple iMac (macOS) systems with one-year next-day warranty service. ISC will support these systems for four years, from July 1, 2021 until June 30, 2025.

Item        Windows macOS


Intel Core i or AMD Ryzen processor
(six core and above)1

Intel Core i or Apple M1 processor
(six core and above) 1

Memory (RAM) 16 GB to 32 GB 16 GB to 32 GB

Mass Storage

256 GB SSD
or 512 GB SSD2

256 GB SSD
or 512 GB SSD2

Display and Graphics

Intel integrated graphics (UHD Graphics 630 and above)
or discrete graphics card

Intel integrated graphics (UHD Graphics 630 and above)
or Apple integrated graphics (any)
or discrete graphics card

Sound Built-in audio and speaker Built-in audio and speaker


85% efficient power supply
optional Bluetooth
hardware-based systems management

85% efficient power supply
integrated Bluetooth

Network Connectivity 10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet 10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

Recommended Operating Systems

Windows 10 version 2004 and above4

macOS Big Sur (11.x)5

Support Period Until July 2025 Until July 2025
Estimated Price $1,300 to $1,6006 $1,100 to $1,8006



  1. For many years, the class of processor (e.g., Core i5, Core i7, etc.) was the primary criterion for selecting a desktop system processor. This is no longer true. For AMD, Apple, and Intel processors, ISC suggests six or more cores while ensuring the processor also has capable integrated graphics or is paired with a discrete graphics card. A more detailed University-centric perspective on processors is available from ISC's Processor Guide.
  2. An option often called something like "Keep Your Hard Drive," allows the retention of defective mass storage when receiving replacement mass storage drive under warranty. This option usually costs about $20 and is a sound choice for many Schools and Centers to avoid possible disclosure of sensitive data.
  3. Displays should be high quality and support at least Full HD resolution—a good display should be usable for two hardware life cycles. See ISC's Display and Graphics Guide for more information as there are often significant variances in features, resolution, and display quality among displays of the same size.
  4. Windows 10 version 2004 and above (64-bit Pro and Enterprise editions) are recommended for new systems. ISC does not recommend but will support all 32-bit versions of Windows 10 and the 64-bit version of Windows 10 Home. Home lacks important networking, security, and compatibility features, such as domain-based authentication, that are essential to many Schools and Centers in the University. ISC does not support Windows 10 S.
  5. macOS Big Sur (11.x) is the only choice for new Mac systems as Apple's newly released systems always require the latest macOS version. Apple's Boot Camp technology offers added flexibility for users of Intel-based Macs who need to use Windows 10 occasionally (it does not function with Apple Silicon-based Macs). It should not be used to turn a Mac into a mainly Windows system. Boot Camp requires that both the Windows and the macOS operating systems be patched and maintained.
  6. Pricing is generated using online configurators available from Apple, Dell, and Lenovo and is for general reference only.

four-year comparative history of the desktop recommendations is provided for reference.

In response to what is sometimes rapid technological change, ISC's Desktop Purchasing Guide offers purchase recommendations for new systems that meet or exceed these specifications. Specifications are reviewed and updated when there are significant changes for desktop systems.


Several distinct categories of notebook systems are available, each designed to suit the needs of a particular class of users. Given the physical conditions to which they are often subjected, notebook systems have a shorter useful life than desktop systems (typically around three years). Therefore, ISC provides support for three years for major brands of notebook systems. The current Notebook Purchasing Guide can help you determine which combination of features and capability will best serve your needs.

Extending warranties

For computers with warranties of less than three years, ISC strongly recommends the purchase of extended warranties when departments are not prepared to self-insure and make repairs themselves, especially beyond the first year or two of a computer's useful life.

Manufacturers such as Apple and Dell now offer four-year warranties for desktops. If a system is used for the full four-year life cycle, these warranties (typically adding about $40 to $80 to the overall cost over a three-year warranty) are often appropriate. However, support providers should expect the system failure rate in the fourth year to be higher than that in the first three years.

Another option is to self-insure for the fourth year by allocating the additional funds that would otherwise be spent on warranty extensions into a fund to fix or replace systems that fail during the fourth year of service.

Operating system life cycle support

While once possible, ISC cannot expect support for older or aging versions of Windows and macOS to persist through the four-year life cycle of the desktop recommendations. Please refer to the Operating System Life Cycles charts for long-term guidance on the University's supported operating systems.

Improving sustainability

University IT staff are encouraged to continue adopting measures that promote "Green IT." One option for buyers is to purchase small form factor or all-in-one desktops when possible—they use less power and significantly fewer materials than larger towers. The University's hardware vendors now offer high-efficiency (85% or higher—often branded as 80 PLUS) power supplies at little or no additional cost.

Hardware-based systems management technology (examples are Intel Standard Manageability, iAMT, and VPro) offers the capability of booting remotely from a completely off (not just sleep) condition. It allows Windows-based systems to save substantial energy and still be available for remote access, patching, and backup.

Ultra Low-Cost Desktops—not recommended

Price reductions resulting from market competition and continued technical innovation make definition of "Ultra Low-Cost Desktops" a moving target. It is generally true that computers priced in the bottom 40% of the current range compromise some combination of performance, reliability, compatibility, expandability, and warranty period to achieve the lowest possible costs.

Considering that "you get what you pay for" and since total costs of ownership associated with supporting any desktop system always far outweigh the actual purchase price, ISC strongly discourages purchasing "Ultra Low-Cost Desktops" for general use.

As an alternative, the Value Desktop Purchasing Guide offers recommendations for competitively priced systems that are compatible with Penn's computing environment and are widely supported on campus. ISC has certified low-cost enterprise-class systems for use at the University. However, these systems may not always be the best choice as they often lack important manageability or configurability features.

Controlling costs

Controlling costs continues to be necessary, though other considerations also must be weighed to ensure that business needs are met. A cost and resource savings option already commonly employed at the University is to buy high-quality displays with LED backlights every other life cycle instead of every life cycle. Another option is to bundle significant numbers of identical systems into a single purchase, often resulting in an additional discount from the system vendor.

Further information

ISC provides information on supported computing applications, middleware, and operating systems.

All desktop systems should have important data backed up and be kept virus-free. Additional security information from the Office of Information Security can be found here.

The Office of Environmental Health and Radiation Safety provides information on computer ergonomics.