Best Cheap Gaming Computers
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
Why spend the money for a cheap gaming computer? You can find plenty of home desktops priced between $300 and $600, but if you're dedicated to pulse-pounding PC gaming, those low-end off-the-rack systems won't cut it. They simply don't have the raw horsepower to run today's games at high settings. The latest and best games are full of luscious eye candy and fast-paced action, and a PC can't run those games in all their high-detail glory without some serious hardware.
Cheap Gaming Computers Buying Guide
Cheap gaming computers start at about $900 and high-end machines can easily top $5,000. Prices vary widely even for the same model, depending on the components. More often than not, they don't include a display or any peripherals such as a mouse and keyboard.
The best cheap gaming computers typically don't come from familiar names such as HP or Gateway. Smaller, specialized PC makers such as Maingear, Falcon Northwest, Velocity Micro, and Digital Storm rule this niche market and manufacture our two top picks. The Maingear Vybe (starting at $1,049; $1,849 as reviewed) is more expensive than most cheap gaming computers but packs a lot of power for the money, and the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 (starting at $999; $1,219 as reviewed) performs like a much more expensive system, thanks to an overclocked CPU (more on that later). Companies such as Lenovo, Acer, and Dell (under the name Alienware) do offer budget gaming PCs, including two that made our list as good cheap gaming computers. For people who want a smaller, more portable gaming rig, there's the Alienware X51 (starting at $699; $999 as reviewed). It's about the size of an Xbox 360 but still has all the power of a full-size gaming PC. Alienware Aurora PCs (starting at $1,499) are about design as much as hardware, according to reviews, but they prove capable gaming systems. Lenovo has tepidly stepped into the gaming arena with its K330 system (starting at $950). Although the Lenovo K330 can certainly outperform most home PCs, it struggles to keep up with systems designed specifically for gaming.
If you're not constrained by a budget and want the best gaming PC money can buy, you'll no doubt want to check out a Mach V system from Falcon Northwest (starting at $2,772). The company offers a seemingly endless stream of configurations, with myriad options for CPUs, graphics cards, hard drives, memory, etc. Mach V systems routinely cost more than $4,000, and it's hardly unusual for these high-end PCs to cross the $5,000 mark. Digital Storm, another high-end PC manufacturer, does offer cheap gaming computers, but reviewers consistently gravitate toward the company's excellent $2,000-plus gaming PCs.
When you're shopping for a cheap gaming computer, one of the first things to pay attention to is the available central processing units, or CPUs. If possible, you want a system with an overclocked CPU, provided you don't have to pay significantly more for it (in many cases, you won't have to). As PC World explains, overclocking allows a CPU to run faster than its official baseline speed, giving you the performance of a more powerful machine without the price tag. It's also critical to check out the video card options. Your goal is to strike the right balance between video processing power and cost. While expensive machines employ two or even three video cards, a single, higher-end video card is your best option for a cheap gaming computer. Choose a PC with at least 8 gigabytes of RAM, but don't worry too much about buying RAM that runs at 1,333 megahertz vs. 1,600 MHz. Sure, there's a performance difference, but it's not significant enough for budget shoppers to spend considerably more for faster RAM. That's also true of solid-state drives. SSDs are super-fast, but they're also super-expensive. Better to stick with a traditional 7,200 rpm hard drive for now. Besides, you can always add an SSD to a cheap gaming computer later. A Blu-ray drive may be a tempting option, but that upgrade costs $60 to $150 extra.
Gaming Computer Reviews
We compiled our list of the top budget gaming PCs by poring over lists of components and consulting gaming computer reviews by experts. Naturally, technology editors tend to focus on pricey systems with powerful components. However, high-end hardware is expensive, so frugal gamers must pick their spots. Gaming computer reviews suggest it's worth it to spend a bit more on the CPU and video card and cut corners elsewhere.
Video Card.The video card creates the delicious, eye-popping graphics hardcore gamers crave. The many available brands include MSI, Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte, and PNY. Almost all video cards use a graphics processing unit, or GPU, made by one of two companies: Nvidia and AMD. Gaming PC makers seem to favor video cards with Nvidia GPUs, and all the gaming PCs on our list have video cards built around Nvidia graphics chips.
Some expensive gaming rigs use two or (in the case of the priciest Falcon Northwest Mach V machines) three video cards. Adding an extra video card or two ups a gaming PC's video processing power but also significantly increases its price. That being the case, the only model on our list that includes dual video cards is the most expensive one, the Maingear Vybe (starting at $1,049; $1,849 as reviewed). The extra Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 video card noticeably improves the PC's video scores in expert gaming computer reviews. CNET measured the number of frames per second at 78 using the high settings in the video game "Crysis" -- a very good score. In a gaming computer review for PC World, an expert used the game "Unreal Tournament 3" to test a Maingear Vybe with a single Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 card and clocked it at 130 fps. He says that's the kind of performance you'd expect from a more expensive system.
The Alienware Aurora (starting at $1,499) also offers several dual video card options. The configuration most expert reviewers evaluated includes two ATI Radeon video cards, an option that helps push the price of that system beyond our budget range. However, a reviewer at Hardware Heaven tested a version with a single Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 video card. According to that gaming computer review, the system overall is a little pricey for its performance. But the reviewer compliments the Aurora's video game prowess after finding that it pumped out an average of 64 fps while running "Skyrim" with the game's settings on "ultra." With "Battlefield 3," the Aurora managed to maintain an average of 50 fps on maximum settings -- also an impressive score.
A gaming computer review at PC Mag declares the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 (starting at $999; $1,219 as reviewed), with its single Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti video card, an Editors' Choice in part because its performance blows similarly priced computers out of the water. The reviewer used "Lost Planet 2" on the medium settings to test the Edge Z40 and measured it at 130 fps.
A tiny Alienware X51 (starting at $699; $999 as reviewed) performs better than expected, according to a gaming computer review at Hot Hardware. The reviewer tested a machine that had been upgraded to a Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 video card from the default GT 545 and found that the system displayed a surprising amount of video muscle in testing.
Reviews of the Lenovo K330 system (starting at $950) are pretty critical of its video performance. A CNET reviewer measured a K330 with a Nvidia GeForce GT 440 video card at only 16 fps while running "Crysis" on the game's high settings, which is simply too slow to make the game playable. According to a gaming computer review at TechSpot, an expert found that a K330 with a GTX 460 card could manage 58.9 fps running "Far Cry 2" at high settings. He declares the K330 a respectable gaming PC but says it needs a more powerful graphics card. (One widely available version comes with an AMD Radeon HD 6450, which expert comparisons suggest is even slower than the Nvidia GeForce cards.
Cheap Gaming PCs, Gaming Computer Processors
The central processing unit, or CPU, is the heart of any gaming PC, budget or otherwise. Both AMD and Intel produce gaming computer processors, but it's clear that manufacturers favor chips from Intel. All the cheap gaming PCs we review use Intel Core processors, and most of the CPU options manufacturers list are Intel chips.
The latest Intel Core CPUs are available in three general classes: i3, i5, and i7, with i3 being the most affordable and i7 the most powerful. For cheap gaming PCs, manufacturers tend to stick to i5 CPUs, which offer a nice combination of price and performance. There are more than a dozen models of Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs, and you won't glean much information about performance from the four-digit model numbers. Intel does have a comparison chart of all of its current desktop CPUs, so you can see which features each one offers. The more powerful CPUs have high clock speeds and four to six cores (a core is a sort of mini-processor built into a single chip. CPU manufacturers combine several cores into one chip, and those cores work together to improve processor efficiency and performance). The gaming computer processors in our favorite budget models have four cores.
When shopping for a cheap gaming PC, you'll come across models with "overclocked" CPUs. This is a trick manufacturers use to make mid-priced CPUs much more powerful by increasing their clock speeds. The faster the CPU's clock speed (measured in gigahertz), the faster it can crunch those digital ones and zeros. For example, the Maingear Vybe most experts reviewed has an Intel Core i7-2600 CPU, which has an official clock speed of 3.4 GHz, but Maingear will overclock the CPU to 4.0 GHz or faster. There is one drawback: The more you overclock a gaming computer processor, the hotter it runs. Manufacturers use powerful CPU coolers to keep gaming computer processors from overheating, which can cause the computer to crash or shut down and damage the CPU. An overclocked CPU with proper cooling can really boost a cheap gaming PC's power for little cost.
Expert reviewers favor overclocked processors precisely because they provide more bang for the buck. CNET raves about the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 in part because the CPU on the machine the reviewer tested was overclocked from a mere 3.3 GHz to 4 GHz, which helped boost its performance to the level of a system that would cost several hundred dollars more. PC Mag notes that CPU on the Maingear Vybe its reviewer tested was overclocked from 3.4 GHz to 4.8 GHz, a staggering boost.
CNET is critical of the Alienware Aurora system it reviewed because the manufacturer offers only minor overclocking to boost its gaming computer processors. This particular model comes with an Intel Core i7-2600K CPU overclocked to 3.9 GHz. Competing models with more aggressively overclocked CPUs, such as the Maingear Vybe, can trump the Aurora in CPU performance. The Alienware X51 is a very small, cheap gaming PC, and most of its components, including its CPU, are more modest than those on pricier gaming systems. According to Hot Hardware, the computer's Intel Core i5-2320 CPU can't compete in terms of raw power with more expensive overclocked or i7 CPUs.
As for the Lenovo K3300, an expert reviewer from PC World calls its 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5-2500 CPU "brisk" for a sub-$1,000 PC but notes that the K330 is more impressive for general use than for gaming.
Custom Gaming Computers
For each feature on a budget gaming PC, the manufacturer is likely to provide a list of hardware from which to choose. Some companies afford consumers more flexibility than others. AVADirect, for instance, offers a seemingly endless array of options -- including more than 250 just for the video card on one of its custom gaming computers (starting at $1,006). If you're careful about how you configure your system, you can get a lot of bang for your buck. As we've seen, the best strategy may be to splurge on the CPU and video card and see how much you have left for more memory and storage, and perhaps an upgraded optical drive.
Memory.Here we're talking about random-access memory, or RAM. The two factors to consider with respect to RAM are the amount and the speed. Consumers ordering a custom gaming computer should go with at least 4 gigabytes of RAM, but 8GB is more common and should be enough to handle today's most intense games. Some mid-range to high-end PCs house even more memory. The base configuration of the pricey Falcon Northwest Mach V includes 8GB of RAM, but you can expand that to a staggering 32GB -- definitely overkill. Among our picks, the Maingear Vybe, the Alienware Aurora, and the Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 have 8GB of RAM as reviewed, and you can find a low-cost K330 with 12GB. The Alienware X51 has 6GB and the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 has 4GB. You can upgrade the Edge Z40 to 8GB for $80 or bump up the Alienware X51 to 8GB from 6GB for $50. The Maingear Vybe and Alienware Aurora systems can be upgraded from 8GB to 16GB. That's probably more than most gamers need, but it's nice to have a bit of wiggle room. It costs $79 to double the memory on the Maingear Vybe and $100 to upgrade the Alienware Aurora.
The speed of PC memory is measured in megahertz. Most budget gaming PCs operate at 1,333 MHz, but a handful, including the Maingear Vybe and Alienware Aurora, use memory that runs at 1,600 MHz. That gives the system a little speed boost, but it's something gamers on a budget can safely forgo.
Hard Drives.Most PCs still have the same old magnetic hard drives that have been in use for years. Drives that spin at 7,200 rpm have a slight performance advantage over 5,400 rpm models. That being the case, it's no surprise that all our picks have hard drives that spin at 7,200 rpm. Current magnetic hard drives offer tremendous storage capacity, typically about 1 terabyte, which is more than enough room to store all your games as well as lots of photos, videos, music, and anything else you care to save on your PC. This is one area where the Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 out does the other models on our list: You can find a sub-$1,000 machine with a 2TB hard drive, although it comes at the expense of other, more crucial components.
Newer solid-state drives, or SSDs, are also becoming popular in custom gaming computers. SSDs use the same type of flash memory technology found in USB thumb drives, but on a larger scale. SSDs transfer data much more quickly than traditional hard drives do, which makes them a favorite among gamers and PC power users. However, SSDs offer much less storage for the money. For example, $100 will buy you a 1TB hard drive but only about 64GB of storage on an SSD. A 120GB SSD will set you back at least $120 and probably closer to $150. Some PC gamers balance the cost, storage capacity, and performance of SSDs and traditional hard drives by using a custom gaming computer with one of each: the smaller SSD to run the operating system, games, and any other demanding programs and the larger traditional hard drive to store vast libraries of videos, photos, and other data. This is the setup on the Digital Storm Ode Level 3 (starting at $2,339). None of our budget picks includes an SSD, although you can add one to a custom gaming computer for an extra cost. For example, Velocity Micro will let you replace the default 1TB hard drive on the Edge Z40 with a 60GB SSD for $50, and you can have both the 60GB SSD and the 1TB hard drive for $150. If you have any room in your budget, you should strongly consider adding an SSD to a custom gaming computer in addition to the standard 1TB hard drive.
Optical Drives.Optical drives have little direct influence on the overall performance of a gaming PC, so this is one area where manufacturers cut corners. Most gaming PCs come with a basic DVD-RW drive, which can read several types of optical media, including CDs and DVDs, and record data to CDs and DVDs. However, it cannot read Blu-ray discs. Many dedicated gamers won't mind this concession, though some do like to use their systems to play Blu-ray movies. Manufacturers typically give users the option to either swap out a DVD-RW drive for a Blu-ray drive or include a Blu-ray drive in addition to the DVD-RW drive on a custom gaming computer. Expect to spend between $60 and $150 for one of these upgrades.
Cheap Gaming Laptops
Not all powerful gaming PCs are wrapped up in large, bulky desktop cases. Gamers can opt for svelte gaming laptops instead. Cheap gaming laptops aren't without their drawbacks, but they take up less room and they're much easier to transport. As with desktops, prices for gaming laptops vary considerably. For example, the Digital Storm xm15 starts at a relatively modest $889. Head over to Falcon Northwest, and a DRX gaming laptop starts at $3,642.
Gaming notebooks are available in a variety of sizes, from the 11.6-inch screen on the Alienware M11x (starting at $1,099) to the much larger 17.3-inch display on the Digital Storm x17 (starting at $1,495). These portable systems have many of the same features as desktop models. Most are equipped with an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU. Cheap gaming laptops typically come with between 4GB and 8GB of RAM and have sizeable hard drives, although they start at 500GB, rather than the 1TB that's standard on cheap gaming desktops. Like desktops, cheap gaming laptops most often come with Windows 7 Home Premium.
Laptop buyers generally don't have as many hardware configuration options. You can choose the processor, the amount of memory, the size of the hard drive, and the optical drive (DVD-RW or Blu-ray), and that's usually about it. You might be able to choose a video card from a couple of options, but gaming desktops typically offer a much wider variety of choices. What's more, a full-size video card won't fit in a small laptop chassis, and full-size cards tend to be more powerful than their laptop counterparts.
While desktop buyers have the option to dramatically overclock a computer's CPU to squeeze more power out of the chip, doing so requires a hefty heat sink and fan to keep the machine from overheating. Some desktops even feature exotic liquid cooling systems. Cheap gaming laptops rely on Intel's Turbo Boost technology to pep up their CPUs when a game requires more processing power. This is better than nothing, of course, but doesn't deliver the same level of performance you can achieve with an overclocked desktop CPU and more powerful cooling hardware.
At first glance, the prices for cheap gaming laptops seem pretty competitive with those of budget desktop PCs. However, that money buys less powerful hardware in a laptop than a desktop. Compare the Alienware M17x laptop to the Alienware Aurora gaming PC. Both start at $1,499, but the Aurora desktop has a faster CPU, more memory, and a larger hard drive than the M17x. It also offers more video card options, including dual video cards.
So, what's the appeal of a gaming laptop? Size is certainly a factor. There's no bulky tower under your desk encroaching on your legroom. If you want the experience of a larger display, you can rest a laptop on a corner of your desk and plug it into a monitor. Portability is also a major selling point, especially for users who like to get together with friends at LAN parties for head-to-head gaming action. It's far less of a hassle to bring a laptop than to carry a full-size PC. There's also a certain cool factor that comes with packing enough power for gaming into such a small, sleek package.
For consumers who place a premium on desktop space and portability, a cheap gaming laptop is certainly worth considering. However, if you're looking to maximize the power and performance you get for the money and want more hardware options from which to choose, stick with a desktop.