Posted by dhilipkumar
- Mar 24, 2009, 03:22 AM
How to Buy a Cheap Desktop PC
When it comes to desktop PCs, you don't have to spend a lot to get a lot. We give you the lowdown on getting more for less, and recommend seven great systems.
How low should you go when buying a desktop PC? If you just need a machine to meet basic computing needs--Web browsing, basic photo editing, playing music, writing e-mail, spreadsheet tracking--you can go pretty darn low. In fact, you can get a whole lot of computer for less than $500. And that's great news, particularly in today's economy.
Cheap desktops are perfect if your computing needs are modest, your budget is tight, or if you're looking for a second or third PC for your home. Cheap PCs are usually full-blown desktop PCs a mini-tower or small-form-factor desktop case. They often have optical drives installed (a DVD burner or a DVD/CD-RW combo drive), slots for adding system memory, and some expansion/upgrade potential (hard drive, PCI/PCIe card slots, graphics card slots).
The Heart of the Matter: How Much Power?
Dual-core processors, particularly AMD Athlon X2 or Intel Pentium Dual Core models, are the norm in value PCs, though single-core processors (AMD Athlon 64, Intel Celeron) can show up in really cheap models. Most Pentium Dual Core processors are based on the same architecture as the Intel Core 2 Duo processors, with a little less L2 cache, clock speed, or FSB speed. For example, the Pentium Dual Core E5000 series are similar to the Core 2 Duo E7000 series processors. I recommend a dual core AMD or Intel processor because it's a must for today's attention-challenged, multitasking PC users.
Look for at least 2GB of RAM: The more memory, the better. More memory allows you to do two things: open up more programs and windows at once, and it makes multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster. Have you ever opened up Windows Media Player, IE, Photoshop Essentials, and e-mail all at the same time, then seen your system slow down and your hard drive activity light continuously blinking like a flirting Cyclops? That's the effect of having too little RAM.
Storage: A Place to Keep Your Stuff
You're going to want a 250GB to 400GB hard drive. Thankfully, 250GB to 320GB is standard for value desktops these days. You need all of this space for all the things you download to your PC, like photos, videos, e-mails, and music. Any iPod or iPhone user should set aside at least twice the capacity of their device. So, for instance a 32GB iPod Touch user should have at least 64GB of extra space handy for music and iTunes downloads. If you're the type of person who watches TV programs on iTunes or Amazon downloads, you'll need much more storage than you think. Budget on at least 30GB per TV show season, particularly if you prefer viewing in HD quality.
A DVD burner is standard equipment these days, so don't accept a system with a measly DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. Some people will argue that you don't need an optical drive anymore. Granted, applications are moving to the Web and downloads are rapidly replacing buying software and entertainment in a retail store, but you should have at least one PC in your house with a drive that reads CDs and DVDs for all those old discs you have lying around.
Graphics: Integrated without Bussing
You'll find integrated graphics in most cheap PCs. The PC makers do this to keep costs down, since every extra component requires both extra money and extra power capacity from the power supply unit (PSU). Integrated graphics is enough for minor 3D functions like the Aero interface in Vista, Web sites, and some older games. If you want to play today's games, like Crysis, you'll need discrete graphics like an ATI Radeon HD or Nvidia GeForce PCIe x16 card, but I think it's best to buy a more powerful system from the get go.
Expansion room: Time to Loosen the Belt
Most mini-tower and some small form factor value desktops will have a measure of expansion space. You'll find space for at least one extra internal hard drive, PCIe x16 graphics card slot, PCI or PCIe expansion slots, and maybe space for another optical drive. You may find extra DIMM slots, which will let you upgrade your system memory later. Eventual upgrades in a value PC are likely to be modest: the 125W to 250W PSU in these budget PCs won't be able to power more than a mid-level graphics card or more than two internal hard drives.
Where do Nettops fit?
Nettops belong to a desktop category that comes in below the value desktops, both in price (for the most part) and capabilities. Nettops run on the same basic components that netbooks do (low-powered processor, non-upgradable integrated graphics, 512MB or 1GB of RAM, smaller hard drive, no optical drive, Windows XP or Linux). They're built to surf the Web, run Office apps, and other very light computing duties. Unlike cheap PCs, nettops have no capacity for internal expansion. One benefit they do have is that they can be equipped with a built-in screen and still be bought for under $600.
You'll need to budget another $200 for a monitor, unless you're going to use the one from your previous computer. All-in-one budget desktops (with built-in monitors) are rare in this price-range (if you discount nettops). Peripherals like keyboards and mice are included, though they're usually inferior to the keyboards and mice in the more expensive mainstream PC category. Some models still come with antiquated ball mice. Any pack-in speakers are likely to be tinny-sounding but usable. Built-in memory card readers are a must today, with different formats used in digital cameras, phones, and some MP3 players. You should find them on most value PCs, with the possible exception of the sub-$250 bargain basement cast-offs.
A downside to cheaper PCs is the specter of crapware. Like broadcast TV and "free" cell phones, one of the reasons why the PCs are so cheap is because some other entity is subsidizing the low prices. Although most desktops come with some crapware, manufacturers tend to put more of it into lower-end models. Crapware consists of all of those "trial" and extra software that's designed to tempt you into buying stuff that didn't come with your PC. At worse, it can be hard to completely remove from your system and can even compromise performance.
There's almost always a copy of Microsoft Office 2007 60-day trial on the hard drive. Companies like eBay and WildTangent also get prominent placement with shortcuts on the desktop and extra programs in the Start menu. See my rant against crapware for more details. You can of course uninstall these unneeded programs yourself using the Programs control panel in Vista (just think, will I ever use this copy of AOL, My HP games, or eBay shortcut, etc.?). Just be sure to budget about an hour or two of clicking and waiting.
A Word to the Wise
When you're trying to save money, it's tempting to buy the cheapest PC you can find--don't do it. If it doesn't have the recommended features I've outlined above, you'll wind up with something that is super slow or, worse yet, unusable within a year. That incredible buy may cost you more in the long run than it was worth.
orginaly posted on pcmag.com