Free alternatives to MS Office include open source suites and web-based tools. The cost, though, is some limitations on functionality.
Desktop Features: Memory, Storage, Graphics, and More
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.
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.Back to top »
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