Best Cheap Desktop Computers
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
When purchasing a cheap desktop computer it's important to understand what you're getting. Entry-level computers are simple systems designed to carry out everyday PC tasks. They're not ideal for more intensive, graphics-heavy activities such as video editing or 3D gaming. Still, the best cheap PCs can do much more than handle email and surf the web. We sought out sub-$500 systems with the hardware for multitasking and multimedia. We found contenders from major manufacturers including Dell, Gateway, Lenovo, Asus, and HP.
Gateway DX4870 Review
Operating System Windows 8
CPU Intel Core i3
Hard Drive 1TB
Ports/Connectivity Two USB 3.0; six USB 2.0; HDMI; Bluetooth
|430||Windows 8||Intel Core i3||6GB||1TB||Two USB 3.0; six USB 2.0; HDMI; Bluetooth|
Lenovo H520 Review
Operating System Windows 8
CPU Intel Pentium
Hard Drive 1TB
Ports/Connectivity Six USB 2.0
|360||Windows 8||Intel Pentium||4GB||1TB||Six USB 2.0|
Dell Inspiron 660s Review
Operating System Windows 8
CPU Intel Celeron
Hard Drive 500GB
Ports/Connectivity Two USB 3.0; six USB 2.0; HDMI
|300||Windows 8||Intel Celeron||4GB||500GB||Two USB 3.0; six USB 2.0; HDMI|
Dell Inspiron One 20
Operating System Windows 8
CPU Intel Celeron
Hard Drive 500GB
Ports/Connectivity Five USB 2.0; Bluetooth
|400||Windows 8||Intel Celeron||4GB||500GB||Five USB 2.0; Bluetooth|
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.
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.
Desktop PCs Speed and Power
The performance of even the best low-cost PCs lags that of mid- and high-end desktops, especially when it comes to games or other programs that place heavy demands on the hardware. Still, desktop computer reviews indicate that experts and consumers expect good performance when it comes to the basics: web browsing, emailing, photo editing, listening to music, watching YouTube videos, and so on.
For the most part, the entry-level desktop computers we researched meet those expectations -- some better than others. Indeed, many users actually seem impressed with how well certain inexpensive desktop PCs perform, according to their online comments. We narrowed the field to systems that have undergone expert scrutiny and emerged with positive appraisals, although slight differences in the specifications of a given model are sometimes reflected in slightly different ratings. Computer experts devote much of their attention to pricey models with the latest and greatest hardware, which limits the pool of desktop computer reviews focused on the computers in our price range.
Overall Performance.Budget desktop PCs aren't going to blaze through 3D games and other intensive programs, but any low-cost desktop should have enough heft to handle everyday computing tasks with ease. All the systems we researched are certainly capable in these areas, with some delivering more of a performance pop than others. Performance is largely determined by the CPU, although the amount of memory plays a role as well.
The Gateway DX4870 (starting at $430) is the most powerful among our picks, thanks to its Intel Core i3 CPU and 6GB of RAM. It shines in benchmark tests by PC Mag, which bestows its Editor's Choice award on this system. Several users rave about the speed and performance in desktop computer reviews at Best Buy, where one writes that the Gateway DX4870 is far, far faster than the system it replaced although it falters slightly on the gaming front. The only systems that perform faster cost more than $500 and include better hardware.
The Lenovo H520 (starting at $360) isn't quite as peppy with its Intel Pentium CPU and 4GB of RAM, but still has snap. A review in PC Mag of a slightly different model lauds its multimedia abilities and reports that it excelled in all the benchmark tests. That slimmer version has different specs, though, so we turned to comments posted at outlets such as Staples, where users commend the speed and overall value of the H520.
Both Dell PCs we researched are solid performers, although not blazing fast; in their most basic configurations both contain Intel Celeron CPUs and 4GB of RAM. Users expressed mixed opinions about the Dell Inspiron 660S (starting at $300), which may reflect the particular specs on the units they purchased. Several desktop computer reviews at Amazon, for example, report crashes and complete breakdowns while posts at Walmart and Best Buy are more supportive, asserting that the Inspiron 660s is fast, efficient, and sufficient for everyday needs, including media functions like watching videos and playing basic online games. Users who reviewed the Dell Inspiron One 20 (starting at $400) at Best Buy like this all-in-one. One user appreciates how quick the system is given its space-saving footprint, and while compliments about speed are sparse, so, too, are complaints about lack of power. By and large, users conclude that the Inspiron One 20 is fast enough for general computing purposes and meets their expectations.
Both the HP Pavilion 20-b010z (starting at $454) and Asus CM1735 (starting at $397) are too slow for the tastes of most budget shoppers, according to desktop computer reviews. The Pavilion 20-b010z uses an inexpensive AMD CPU and 2GB of memory in the base configuration tested by PC Mag, which may account for what the review terms its "middling" performance. Another expert at Computer Shopper is likewise critical of the 20-b010z's performance, or lack thereof; testing by this reviewer of the same configuration also turned in sub-par numbers. The Asus CM1735 uses a budget AMD CPU, as well, but includes a generous 6GB of RAM. An About.com desktop computer review asserts the processor can't compete with those from Intel, although the writer concedes that it provides sufficient power for basic PC uses such as web browsing and playing videos. A few users' reviews grumble about poor reliability due to system failures, like crashing and freezing.
If you crave a powerful desktop PC, you'll have to open your wallet a little (or perhaps a lot) wider. The Velocity Micro Vector Z25 (starting at $799) boasts an Intel Core i5 CPU, which is much faster than the budget Intel and AMD processors found in cheaper PC desktops. Of course, the faster CPU isn't the only reason why the Vector Z25 costs over $300 more than a budget system -- the 8GB of RAM also helps -- but it's a big factor.
All-in-One Displays.Two of the systems we researched, the Dell Inspiron One 20 and HP Pavilion 20-b010z, are all-in-one desktop PCs with the operational guts built into the display (good-bye tower). The Pavilion's display looks good, according to expert reviews, with vivid colors and a wide viewing angle. A reviewer at Computer Shopper says the Pavilion's 20-inch display is one of the better panels in its class and the model's best feature. The screen is non-touch, however, and the review cautions this makes navigating Windows 8 a bit, um, "touchy." Screen quality on the Dell Inspiron One 20 impresses users as well, who say the non-touch 20-inch display is perfect for their needs. The fact that it's an all-in-one PC makes for a very fast and easy setup, which users consider an added bonus.
Desktop PC Components
Entry-level desktop systems all contain a minimum amount of memory, storage, and USB ports but a side-by-side comparison suggests that more of these features may better suit users' needs.
Memory.If a PC has too little random access memory, or RAM, its performance will be sluggish. Fortunately, memory is a fairly inexpensive feature, so manufacturers can bump up a desktop's RAM without increasing the overall cost of the system too much. A good budget computer should have at least 4GB of RAM. Two of the budget systems we checked out, the Gateway DX4870 and the Asus CM1735, boast 6GB of RAM while the others feature 4GB. (The Lenovo H520 carried by certain vendors comes with 6GB and the HP Pavilion 20-b010z is available at retail with 4GB although experts tested it with 2GB.) The mid-tier Velocity Micro Vector Z25 comes with 8GB of RAM, as do most PCs in that higher price range.
Storage.Even low-cost computers have sizeable hard drives. The desktops we researched offer either 500GB or 1TB (or about 1,000 GB) of storage, which should be plenty for home users. Like system memory, hard disk drives are fairly cheap, which is why manufacturers can afford to offer copious storage without driving up the retail price.
Three of our picks in the base configuration feature a 500GB hard drive: the Dell Inspiron 660s and Inspiron One 20, and the HP Pavilion 20-b010z. The Gateway DX4870, Lenovo H520, and Asus CM1735 come with 1TB hard drives.
Graphics.Don't expect too much from a cheap desktop on the graphics front. Entry-level machines almost always use integrated video chips rather than separate and more powerful video cards that add to the price. The built-in video processors on low-cost desktops correspond to the CPU brand inside the system and can handle many basic tasks, such as photo editing and casual games like Candy Crush. Try running more graphics-intensive programs like the latest 3D video shooter, however, and it'll be a dud -- budget systems simply lack the horsepower. Even the Gateway DX4870, the most powerful desktop on our list, is short of gaming chops, according to users and experts at PC World. Indeed, virtually every expert review we read includes the caveat that low-end desktops simply aren't made for PC gaming.
If you're not a gamer, don't worry about finding a system with discrete graphics capabilities. Even the Velocity Micro Vector Z25, which wins kudos from PC Mag for its impressive graphics capabilities, uses an integrated graphics chip in its base configuration. Serious gamers should upgrade to a separate graphics card and, likely, a stronger power supply -- or just buy a beefier, pricier gaming computer. Shoppers with a bent for gaming who are interested in the Vector Z25 can upgrade to a discrete video card for as little as $90. (Velocity Micro is primarily an online vendor that offers numerous customization options.)
Operating Systems.Windows 7 had been nearly ubiquitous on budget computers until Microsoft introduced Windows 8, which the company terms a "reimagining" of its operating system. Early reviews of the new OS have been positive, with both CNET and PC Mag rating it above average. Both caution that the learning curve may be steep for some users -- the new design doesn't include the familiar "start" menu, for example.
Frugal desktop purchasers have little choice, however. All the models we researched come with Windows 8 already installed, although shoppers gunning for the Velocity Micro Vector Z25 can choose Windows 7 instead. Why pick Windows 7 instead of Windows 8? Turns out a lot of users aren't very fond of the new OS. Windows 8 has a completely different look and feel than Windows 7, so users are in for a shock when first encountering Win8. We read complaint after complaint about the new operating system in the majority of reviews. Users simply don't like it. Microsoft will soon release an 8.1 version that should make the transition to Win8 easier for many. For an informative overview of Windows 8.1, check Tech Radar.
Optical Drives.An optical drive is usually standard equipment on an inexpensive desktop computer. All the desktops on our list include a CD/DVD burner, which can read CDs and DVDs and burn data onto recordable CDs and DVDs. Some more expensive PCs include Blu-ray drives, which are still too expensive to make it onto budget systems. If you buy through a manufacturer that lets you customize and buy a PC online, you may be able to add a Blu-ray drive for an extra fee.
Additional Features.Computer manufacturers may not add lots of frills to budget computers but there are some basic extras that most low-cost PCs include, such as a keyboard and mouse. Also look for a generous number of USB ports (for connecting everything from a printer to a digital camera), and keep an eye out for USB 3.0 ports, which transfer data faster than 2.0 ports. All the budget PCs we researched come with at least four USB 2.0 ports in their base configurations, but only the Gateway DX4870, Dell Inspiron 660s, and HP Pavilion 20-b010z boast USB 3.0 ports (two in each case).
Card readers are another popular feature found in budget PCs. These devices can read a variety of memory cards from digital cameras and other devices. All of our picks include a media card reader that can handle SD and MMC cards, among others.
Built-in wireless support is ubiquitous in laptops but not quite so in desktop PCs. The Asus CM1735 and Velocity Micro Vector Z25 require wired connections. The Lenovo H520, HP Pavilion 20-b010z, Dell Inspiron 660s and Inspiron One 20, and Gateway DX4870 support wireless, as well. The latter two models also cozy up to Bluetooth-enabled devices.
HDMI ports, also very common in laptops, are starting to appear more often in the budget desktop segment. The Gateway DX4870 and Dell Inspiron 660s feature an HDMI port.