Best Cheap Gaming Computers
Published on By Michael Sweet
Velocity Micro Edge Z40 Review
From $1219 Best
The Edge Z40 is a truly cheap system that far outperforms others at this price with the help of an overclocked CPU. Add a little more memory to this PC and you'll have a budget gaming system that can hold its own against much more expensive machines.
This gaming computer seems to have made a strong impression on most reviewers. In a Velocity Micro Edge Z40 review for CNET, a senior editor raves about the value of this gaming PC, giving it the site's Editors' Choice award. In testing, the Edge Z40 produced numbers that were competitive with much more expensive systems, according to the review. An analyst at PC Mag is equally enthusiastic in his Velocity Micro Edge Z40 review. He found that this model annihilated other similarly priced PCs in gaming tests. The combination of performance and price earn the Edge Z40 an Editors' Choice tag from PC Mag as well.
As reviewed, the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 (starting at $999; $1,219 as reviewed, Amazon) is powered by an Intel Core i5-2500K quad-core CPU that has been "hyperclocked" to 4 GHz from 3.3 GHz. The default configuration includes only 4GB of RAM, so you may want to kick that up to 8GB (for an additional $80). As for video power, the Z40 machines reviewers evaluated include a Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti video card. A 1TB, 7,200 rpm hard drive provides plenty of storage. The Edge Z40 includes a DVD-RW drive and, unlike most gaming PCs, comes with a keyboard and mouse in its base configuration. The 700-watt power supply provides more than enough power for this system and can easily handle several future upgrades, such as a much more powerful video card. Reviewers note, however, that if you'd like to eventually add a second video card, you'll have to switch from the Nvidia brand to AMD Radeon, as the motherboard doesn't support Nvidia's linking technology (known as SLI).
The Velocity Micro Edge Z40 is a good value in its default configuration, but if you're willing to kick in a few hundred dollars more, you can turn this system into an excellent gaming rig while keeping the price relatively low. Consider overclocking the processor, doubling the memory, and springing for a stronger, faster video card. If you don't need the keyboard and mouse, you can remove them from the configuration and save yourself $20. Either way, that's a top budget gaming PC for less than $1,300.
Maingear Vybe Review
From $1849 Best
If you're hungry for computing power, the Vybe is for you. This system comes with two video cards to keep up with your games' graphics, and the rest of the hardware also impresses. While this computer is pricier than our other picks, it can compete with PCs that cost well over $2,000.
Maingear Vybe reviews give this system kudos for skipping frivolous bells and whistles and focusing on performance. A Maingear Vybe review at Digital Trends calls the version it reviewed a "pragmatic" gaming system that delivers a lot of value for the money. In one review at PC Mag, an expert attributes the system's power in part to an overclocked Intel Core i7-2600 CPU. The Vybe turned in impressive scores in PC Mag's tests, which led the reviewer to declare the Vybe a "terrific choice" for those who want a gaming PC for less than $2,000. At PC World, an expert echoes those Maingear Vybe reviews, saying the version he tested offers a lot of gaming muscle for the money. It performed at least as well as, and often better than, similarly priced and more expensive gaming systems.
As reviewed, the Maingear Vybe (starting at $799; $1,849 as reviewed) is equipped with an overclocked Intel Core i7-2600 CPU and 8GB of RAM. For graphics power, the Vybe combines two Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 video cards -- part of the reason it costs more than our other picks. It has a 1TB, 7,200 rpm hard drive under the hood, as well as a DVD-RW optical drive. The system runs Windows 7 Home Premium, and a 660-watt power supply unit provides the necessary juice. Like most gaming systems, the Vybe does not include a keyboard or mouse. Should you desire those peripherals, Maingear offers several from which to choose, starting at $19 each.
Although it's the most expensive model on our list, in the greater scope of PC gaming rigs, the Maingear Vybe is a relatively cheap machine. One of its most outstanding features is the ability to use two linked video cards, so you can play games on high quality settings without sacrificing speed. An overclocked CPU also punches up this PC's performance. Of course, you can fiddle around with the configuration to lower the price or up the performance, but the Stock Intel Z68 QuikShip configuration provides a good balance of gaming power and cost.
Where to buy
Alienware X51 Review
From $999 Good
Not everyone likes the idea of a huge tower, especially if they're looking for a PC to take to LAN parties, where gamers set up a local area network and play multiplayer games. The X51 comes in a small package, but in the configuration we reviewed, it packs a lot of punch.
Most users think of gaming PCs as giant, heavy desktop systems, but Dell took a much different design approach with its Alienware X51 (starting at $699; $999 as reviewed, Amazon) system. The PC looks more like an Xbox 360 or PlayStation than a gaming tower, yet it still provides plenty of power, according to Alienware X51 reviews -- if you choose the right version. The cheapest X51 starts at $699, and although it's a solid PC in its own right, it's not cut out for serious gaming. Most Alienware X51 reviews refer to a higher-priced version with a faster processor and an upgraded video card. At Hot Hardware, a reviewer writes that the video card exceeded his expectations and the machine is quiet to boot. Those factors help earn the Alienware X51 an Editors' Choice nod from the site. The system receives the same award from PC Mag, where an Alienware X51 review cites its smooth performance in testing. The reviewer notes that the X51 isn't quite as powerful as larger, more expensive gaming PCs, but its still does the job. An expert reviewer at CNET likes the design in spite of the performance that had to be sacrificed to create such a small PC, and notes that the slim machine includes a full-size video card.
The version we review here includes a Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 video card, an Intel Core i5-2320 CPU, and 6GB of RAM running at 1,333 MHz. It also comes with a 1TB hard drive, the usual DVD-RW drive, and, unlike most gaming PCs, a built-in wireless card.
Compared with most other gaming PCs, the Alienware X51 is a bit of a different animal. It's designed to be portable as well as powerful, which makes it a good system for LAN parties, where gamers use local area networks to play multiplayer games. While the version we reviewed is solid, for a couple hundred dollars more, you can upgrade to an even higher-end X51 with a more powerful Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM.
Alienware Aurora Review
From $1499 Good
Most critics say similarly priced systems outperform the Aurora, accusing it of offering more style than substance. Having said that, the Aurora still offers plenty of substance and is one of the most eye-catching systems you'll ever see.
The Alienware Aurora includes quite a few bells and whistles you won't find on other budget gaming PCs, such as a stylized case with intricate lighting. From an aesthetics standpoint, the Aurora is tops compared with the other systems we looked at. But an expert at PC World seems to speak for most reviewers when he says he likes the design but considers the system expensive for the performance it delivers. Other PCs in this price range outperform the Aurora in PC World's tests. It should be noted, though, that the model PC World evaluated in its Alienware Aurora review had only 4GB of RAM, instead of the 8GB the machine usually includes. On the other hand, it also included two video cards, whereas the basic (and less expensive) version includes only one. CNET likewise tested a version with 4GB of memory and two video cards, according to the site's Alienware Aurora review, and found the Aurora slower than other comparably priced gaming PCs. An Alienware Aurora review at Hardware Heaven looks at a version that's closer to the default configuration, with one video card and 8GB of RAM. While the reviewer deems the Aurora's performance a bit lacking considering its cost, the video card performed well in the site's testing.
The Alienware Aurora (starting at $1,499, Amazon)comes with an Intel Core i7-3820 quad-core CPU that's been overclocked to 4.1 GHz. The default version includes 8GB of RAM running at 1,600 MHz, as well as a 1TB hard drive. For video power, the Aurora depends on an Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 video card, and the system also includes a DVD-RW drive.
There are certainly plenty of gamers who like a flashy system that looks at least as good as it runs, but that extra eye candy increases the price. Most budget PCs forego frills to keep the cost low and performance high. From a value point of view, you can get more computing power from other PC makers for the same price. But the Alienware Aurora holds its own on the performance front and appeals to those who won't be satisfied with a boring box.
Alienware M17x Review
From $1499 Good
Our top pick among low-cost gaming laptops gives buyers plenty of options to scale up the power while remaining within our budget price range. At less than 10 pounds, this 17.3-inch notebook is easier to carry around than a hefty tower, and the snazzy design befits a gaming machine.
Cheaper versions of this flashy laptop seem to escape the notice of expert reviewers, who (not surprisingly) prefer to experiment with pricier, souped-up versions. An analyst doing an Alienware M17x review for PC Mag checked out an expensive configuration that included a Blu-ray drive, a faster CPU, and 8GB of RAM, among other enhancements. The expert was very impressed with the M17x, noting that both games and movies look 'stunning' on the machine's 17.3-inch, high-definition display, although he also mentions that the screen is very reflective. The full-featured M17x rocked PC Mag's battery of performance tests, demonstrating that users can get desktop-like performance from a laptop. An editor at Computer Shopper who tested a previous version of this machine for an Alienware M17x review is similarly impressed, citing the powerful hardware and impressive display as strong selling points. The reviewer likes that this system provides more configuration options than most competitors. The notebook weighs just under 10 pounds, which may seem a bit on the heavy side but is still lighter than some other laptops with the same size screen, according to Computer Shopper's Alienware M17x review.
The base configuration of the Alienware M17x (starting at $1,499, Amazon) comes with an Intel Core i7-3610QM processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, a 2GB Nvidia GTX 660M video card, a DVD-RW drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium. Additional features include four USB ports, HDMI output for connecting a larger display, as well as an HDMI-in port for a gaming console or Blu-ray player, and Alienware's Command Center software with AlienFX, a feature that lets you control the laptop's many lighting features.
In its default configuration, the M17x is a solid gaming laptop that's comparable in price to many budget desktop systems. You can pump up the power by opting for more expensive components, but Alienware M17x reviews note attributes that cut across price points, such as the build quality and the eye-catching design. This laptop from Dell's popular Alienware brand turns heads as well as it runs games.
Lenovo K330 Review
From $950 Think Twice
The K330 may trump most basic household PCs, but it barely competes as a gaming PC. Its lack of an overclocked CPU and limited upgrade options keep it from competing with the other budget systems we reviewed.
Lenovo is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of gaming PCs. The brand's IdeaCentre K330 is one of the cheapest gaming computers we looked at. While it impresses as a traditional desktop, gamers find its hardware and performance underwhelming, according to Lenovo K330 reviews. Experts at TechSpot tested a version with a faster processor and video card and twice the hard drive capacity of the machines other reviewers evaluated. The site calls the K330's gaming performance respectable but says the system would benefit considerably from a beefier video card, as well as an upgraded power supply unit. A similar configuration earns mixed feedback on Amazon. Lenovo K330 reviews by users include numerous complaints about the video card, and satisfied customers seem to use this PC for business rather than gaming.
The configuration CNET tested simply could not keep up with other budget gaming PCs priced from $1,000 to $1,500, according to the site's Lenovo K330 review. A reviewer at PC World concludes that the K330 actually has a good price-to-performance ratio all things considered, and appreciates the fact that the system he reviewed included a Blu-ray drive, rather than the DVD-RW drive that comes standard on other budget gaming PCs. However, the reviewer declares the K330 better for general use than gaming, where its performance is "lackluster."
The Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 (starting at $950, Amazon) that CNET and PC World tested has an Intel Core i5-2500 CPU and 8GB of RAM. The version available on Amazon and the one TechSpot reviewed come with faster i7-2600 processors and 12 GB of RAM. While experts evaluated machines with Nvidia GeForce GT 440 or GTX 460 video cards, the system sold on Amazon comes with an AMD Radeon HD 6450 video card. Expert comparisons generally rank this card at least a notch below the aforementioned Nvidia cards that didn't impress reviewers. For storage, you can find a Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 with a 2TB hard drive -- twice the size of the hard drives on most other budget systems -- spinning at 7,200 rpm.
The K330 isn't a bad deal as far as desktop PCs go, but it lacks the more powerful components you typically find in budget gaming systems. Sure, it can run PC games, but if you want to up the game settings to maximum, you'll need a more powerful, albeit probably more expensive, gaming rig.
The newer Lenovo IdeaCentre K430 just might fill the bill. With the exception of an overclocked CPU, it has the available components and certainly the pricing to compete with our picks. However, we're still waiting to see what reviewers will have to say about its performance.
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.
Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
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.
Additional Products We Considered
Digital Storm Ode Review
While the Digital Storm Special Ops Ode V2 starts at $1,499 for the Level 1 version, Digital Storm Ode reviews focus on a higher-end Level 3 model and rave about its tremendous computing power. The current Ode Level 3 has somewhat different specs (outlined below) and is priced temptingly close to the top of our range, at $2,099. In a Digital Storm Ode review at PC Mag, an analyst gives the Ode Level 3 the site's Editors' Choice award, noting that its test scores rival those of PCs that cost as much as $1,000 more. An expert reviewer at CNET is also impressed with the power for the price, according to the site's Digital Storm Ode review. The Ode Level 3 that CNET tested outperformed more expensive PCs on the gaming front. Furthermore, the reviewer likes that Digital Storm supplements the 1TB, 7,200 RPM hard drive with a 120GB solid-state drive, or SSD, which can find and transfer data much more quickly than a traditional hard drive.
As reviewed, the Digital Storm Ode Level 3 (starting at $2,339) includes an Intel Core i7-2600K quad-core CPU, 8GB of 1,600 MHz RAM, and a beefy 800-watt power supply. Perhaps the most impressive feature is a pair of Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 video cards, which can fly through graphics-intensive games. The current Ode Level 3 available from Digital Storm comes with only one video card, but it's a speedier GTX 680, and the processor is a newer, more powerful Intel Core i7-3770K, boosted to 4.4 GHz. The cheaper Ode Level 1 has an overclocked Intel Core i5-3570K processor, a Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 video card, and the same 8 GB, 1,600 MHz RAM, but no SSD. Like most budget gaming PCs, the Digital Storm Ode models mentioned here include a DVD-RW optical drive and run Windows 7 Home Premium.
While the Digital Storm Ode Level 3 is not a cheap system, even by gaming standards, it can not only compete with but surpass pricier gaming PCs. If you're willing to dig a little deeper into your pockets, you may want to step up to the Level 3 system. Otherwise, the specs on the Ode Level 1 suggest that model has what it takes to compete with our favorite gaming PCs.
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Falcon Northwest Mach V Review
Falcon Northwest may not be a household name, but it's a titan in the gaming PC industry. The company is known for creating very powerful, very expensive gaming PCs. Its desktop model, the Mach V, is fully configurable, and Falcon Northwest frequently upgrades the available hardware so gamers can choose from the latest components. The lowest-priced default version of the Mach V will set you back $2,772, but the configurations reviewers evaluate typically cost much, much more. For example, an analyst at PC Mag recently tested a $6,899 version for his Falcon Northwest Mach V review. It was stuffed to the gills with the most powerful hardware available, including three video cards working in tandem, so it's no surprise this version earned the site's Editors' Choice award. It testing it emerged as the fastest system PC Mag had ever tested. Digital Trends looked at a $5,700 configuration and found that it delivered similarly eye-popping performance, according to a Falcon Northwest Mach V review. Digital Trends concedes, however, that the Mach V isn't the best bang for the buck.
Falcon Northwest (starting at $2,772) offers a dizzying array of configurability options, so we'll simply run down the default specs for the least expensive Mach V, which comes with an Intel Core i5-3450 quad-core processor running at 3.1 GHZ and 8GB of RAM running at 1,866 MHz. For graphics, the system uses an Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 video card, and you can add up to two more video cards to pump up the graphics performance. The Mach V includes a 1TB hard drive and the typical DVD-RW drive. Unlike most gaming PCs, the Mach V comes with Windows 7 Professional, rather than the Home Premium version.
The Falcon Northwest Mach V is an exercise in ostentatiousness. The company makes beautiful and incredibly powerful gaming PCs. But unless you're a truly obsessed power user who has to have the latest and greatest hardware, the Mach V is overkill. Most users will find that they can buy a perfectly capable gaming PC for much, much less than a tricked-out Mach V.
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AVADirect Custom Gaming PC Review
Manufacturer AVADirect (starting at $1,006) is known for building highly customized gaming computers backed by a solid warranty and free technical support for not much more than it would cost to buy the components separately and build your own system. Judging by some of the models AVADirect has sent out for review, the company wants to prove that it can deliver a good, solid gaming computer without charging a ton of money. The guys on G4TV's "Attack of the Show" tested a $1,023 system and were amazed to find that it performed as well as some $2,500 systems -- an impressive feat. Their AVADirect custom gaming PC review notes the case's roomy design, which makes it easier to add more hardware later on, although they poke fun at its large size and carrying handle. Ultimately they conclude this PC is one of the best deals they've seen and give it a score of 5 out of 5. The editor of PC Perspective likes the handle because it makes the PC easier to take to LAN parties, where gamers come together to play multiplayer games on a local area network. In an AVADirect custom gaming PC review, he admires the well-organized interior and says the system performs as expected, with plenty of power for playing the latest games.
The current base configuration for AVADirect's Z68 custom gaming system also costs just over $1,000 and houses better hardware than the versions reviewers tested, including an Intel Core i5-2500 quad-core CPU and a Radeon HD 7770 video card. Gamers can upgrade to a Core i7-2600K processor for about $92 and opt for mild overclocking for $25. Only 4GB of RAM comes standard, but it costs only about $18 to double that to 8GB, which we strongly recommend.
The system supports multiple Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon video cards, so there's lots of room to upgrade. It comes with the usual 1TB, 7,200 rpm hard drive, DVD-RW drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium. You can add on myriad extras, including solid-state drives, a Blu-ray recorder, and frills such as case lighting.
Experts from the likes of PC Mag tout the clean hard drives on AVADirect custom gaming PCs, which aren't bogged down by bloatware, and praise the systems' value for the money. AVADirect offers consumers countless ways to fine-tune a custom gaming PC with the best hardware that fits within their budget. A three-year parts and labor warranty and free lifetime technical support also help set the brand apart.