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Desktop PCs Buying Guide

Our top picks are the Gateway DX4870 (starting at $430) and Lenovo H520 (starting at $360). The Gateway offers the best combination of features below $500 that we've seen, and it's speedy, to boot.

The Lenovo H520 boasts slightly different specs and is a tad slower but costs about $70 less. We found a pair of good cheap desktop computers from Dell: The Inspiron 660s (starting at $300) comes with two USB 3.0 ports and support for 802.11b/g/n wireless connections yet manages to keep the price well within budget range; the Dell Inspiron One 20 (starting at $400) is an inexpensive all-in-one (no tower) system, an unusual package in the budget market, but Dell delivers without sacrificing too many features or display quality. HP also has a sub-$500 all-in-one, the Pavilion 20-b010z (starting at $454), which presents a nice display but is undone by the slow AMD CPU. The Asus CM1735 (starting at $397) also relies on a relatively pokey AMD CPU, which overshadows the appeal of 6GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive; red flags also include complaints about this system's tendency to freeze and shut down.

In terms of features, some of the cheap desktop PCs we researched come in various configurations at various price points depending on the vendor. That said, they all contain processors from Intel or AMD, both makers of good components, although Intel CPUs tend to be more powerful than budget AMD processors. A worthy entry-level computer should have at least four gigabytes of RAM, as do all those discussed here; still, the more the merrier. Even cheap desktops generally have sizeable hard drives, and our picks feature drives with at least 500GB; a couple even come with a 1TB (terabyte) drive -- the equivalent of about 1,000 GB -- which is quite generous for home users. And remember, the days of Windows 7 are now past; Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system is standard on all new budget PCs.

What most cheap desktop computers lack is a monitor included at the base price. If you want a PC with a monitor for less than $500, consider an all-in-one, which has the guts of the PC built in behind the display. The Dell Inspiron One 20 and HP Pavilion 20-b010z are two examples of budget all-in-ones.

Low-cost desktops showcase nearly the same hardware, so we leaned on expert and user reviews to choose the best among them. In general, reviews indicate that our picks easily handle most everyday tasks, including web surfing, email, word processing, and playing video clips. Cheap computers are not designed for intense 3D games, but users can certainly play simpler games, such as Bookworm and Bejeweled. What separates cheap desktop computers from the big boys? Pricier PCs boast faster and more powerful processors, more gigabytes of memory, and massive hard drives; some also include a Blu-ray drive. Consumers can drop a couple thousand dollars on a high-end PC without much difficulty.

Review continues below

Many computer users may be tempted to choose a sleek, sexy laptop PC over a boxy, mundane desktop, but it's worth taking some time to weigh the pros and cons of each. The simple fact is you get more bang for your limited buck from a cheap desktop than from a low-cost laptop. A desktop might seem so last decade, but it's easier to repair and upgrade and delivers more power per dollar. With a laptop, the manufacturer must fit the same hardware into a smaller package and add a hefty battery, both of which increase the cost of the end product. If you're looking for value and portability isn't a priority, a cheap desktop is the better deal.

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