Choosing a Desktop PC
When purchasing a cheap desktop computer, it's important to understand what you're getting. Entry-level computers are simple machines designed to carry out everyday personal computing tasks. They're not powerhouses designed for intensive, graphics-heavy activities such as video editing or 3D gaming. Still, the best cheap PCs can handle more than just email and web browsing. They often include a decent processor, adequate memory, and generous storage space. We sought out sub-$500 desktops with the hardware for everyday multitasking and multimedia and found contenders from manufacturers such as Dell, Lenovo, Acer -- and even Apple.
It's important to keep in mind that computers, including our picks, are often available in many different configurations. Things like the processor, memory, and hard drive size vary from model to model, and prices and reviews reflect those differences. Having an eagle eye for specs and model numbers is an integral part of shopping for a computer.
Computer Towers.The prototypical budget PC takes the form of a tower and comes with a keyboard and mouse. Our top pick among cheap computer towers is the Acer Aspire TC-780-ACKi5 (est. price $480), which has a powerful Intel Core i5 processor and a whopping 12GB of RAM. For an even lower price, the base configuration of the Dell Inspiron 3668 (I3668-3106BLK-PUS) (est. price $350) offers impressive performance considering its hardware, which includes a seventh-generation Intel Core i3 processor and 8GB of RAM.
All-in-One Computers.Most tower PCs don't include a monitor at the base price. If you want a desktop computer with a monitor for less than $500, consider an all-in-one, which has the guts of a PC built in behind the display. The Dell Inspiron 3265 (i3265-A643WHT-PUS, the cheapest configuration in the AMD-based Inspiron 22 3000 Series) (est. price $400) is our top pick among cheap all-in-one computers.
Mini PCs.Desktop computers usually are not designed to be portable, but there is a subcategory of mini computers that are small and light but still powerful. Our top pick under $500 is the Lenovo ThinkCentre M710 Tiny desktop (starting at $430.00). A cheaper option is a stick PC like the Intel Compute Stick CS325 (est. price $325), which looks more like a flash drive than a computer and can turn any HDMI display into a desktop PC. It's not as powerful as other systems we looked at, and provides much less storage, but it can handle typical PC tasks well enough, and the price is compelling.
Apple Computers.Microsoft's Windows is nearly ubiquitous on cheap desktop computers. Nearly all the models we researched come with Windows 10 Home (the 64-bit version) already installed. If you're a fan of the Apple ecosystem, the Mac Mini (starting at $499) is the only way to get in under $500. To get the price (barely) below that mark, Apple limits the RAM to 4GB and the hard drive to 500GB; many competing PCs have twice that amount of memory and storage. But if you want a Mac desktop, this is the cheapest one on offer.
Laptop vs. Desktop.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 century, 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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Desktop Computer Reviews: What We Considered
To find the best cheap desktops, we consulted review sites including PCMag, CNET, PC Verge, Computer Shopper, TechRadar, and TopTenReviews, all of which conduct comparative testing. But computer experts focus primarily on pricey models with the latest and greatest hardware, which limits the pool of desktop computer reviews devoted to models in our price range. Only novel designs such as the Intel Compute Stick tend to capture experts attention. With that in mind, we looked at user reviews on Amazon, BestBuy.com, and other retail sites, including manufacturers' websites, to zero in on consumer favorites. Owners' comments also provide a sense of long-term performance and pinpoint everyday annoyances that experts sometimes miss, although they often don't specify the exact configuration that was purchased.
Even the best low-cost desktop is going to lag mid-range and high-end machines when it comes to gaming and other tasks that place heavy demands on the hardware. Still, experts and consumers expect good performance when it comes to the basics: web browsing, emailing, word processing, basic photo editing, casual gaming, listening to music, watching YouTube videos, and so on. All the entry-level desktop computers we researched meet those expectations (some more capably than others). Indeed, many users actually seem impressed with how well our top picks perform.
Processor.We reviewed systems with processors, or "central processing units," from both of the big players, Intel and AMD. Intel CPUs are most common among budget desktops. In past years, cheaper (and slower) Celeron and Pentium CPUs were common in budget PCs, but we now see some computers under $500 with relatively fast Core i3 or Core i5 processors, which is excellent news for consumers.
The performance of AMD processors is generally on par with that of their Intel counterparts. Which is better depends on the particular CPUs you're comparing. The Dell Inspiron 22 3000 Series we researched is available in AMD and Intel configurations. Our Dell Inspiron 3265 pick comes with an AMD processor.
Memory.If a PC has too little random access memory, or RAM, its performance will be sluggish. RAM is a relatively inexpensive feature, so manufacturers can bump it up without increasing the overall cost too much. A good budget computer should have at least 4GB of RAM, although 8GB is now pretty standard on budget PCs and allows more programs to run at once. Most models have upgradable memory, as well, so you can buy a cheap PC with 4GB of RAM then upgrade to 8GB (or more) later on.
Storage.Even low-cost computers have sizable hard drives. Many of the desktops we researched offer 1TB of storage, which should be more than enough for home users. Like system memory, hard disk drives are rather cheap, which is why manufacturers can afford to offer copious storage without driving up the retail price. Mini PCs generally have significantly less internal storage but may be expandable via microSD card slots. An optical drive used to be standard equipment on inexpensive desktop computers. Now only a couple of models on our list include a CD/DVD drive, which can read CDs and DVDs and burn data onto disks.
Connectivity.Buying a cheap computer doesn't mean you should settle for limited connectivity options. A budget PC should include at least one USB 3.0 port (ideally two or more) and an HDMI port, along with a couple of USB 2.0 ports. We looked for models with support for 802.11ac wireless connections, the latest and fastest Wi-Fi standard (although the Dell Inspiron 3668 is confined to the older 802.11b/g/n standard). A desktop PC should also have an HDMI port for connecting a monitor and support Bluetooth 4.0 connections.
Graphics.Don't expect too much from a cheap desktop on the graphics front. Entry-level machines almost always use integrated video chips that draw on the system memory, as opposed to separate and more powerful graphics cards with their own dedicated memory, which are found on more expensive machines, particularly gaming computers, and allow faster video processing. The built-in video processors on low-cost desktops correspond to the CPU brand (Intel or AMD) and can handle many tasks such as photo editing, video streaming, and casual games. Try running more graphics-intensive programs like the latest 3D shooter, however, and you'll be disappointed -- budget computers simply lack the horsepower for those games.
Accessories and Software.Some manufacturers throw in accessories or freebies such as a keyboard and mouse, or preinstalled software. Typically, the accessories included with budget PCs are pretty cheaply made. If you buy directly through the manufacturer, you may have the option to decline the ones you don't need. For instance, the Lenovo ThinkCentre M710 Tiny comes with a USB keyboard and mouse by default, but customers who already have those accessories -- or would prefer wireless -- can save $15 by removing them from the order.
Preinstalled software, often derided as "bloatware," is more of a nuisance than a bargain, as the programs tend to be trial versions that let you use the software for a limited time. However, some, such as good antivirus software, are nice extras. Buyers of the Dell Inspiron 3668 and 3265 have the option to add a subscription to Microsoft Office 365 at a discount when ordering from the manufacturer.