How to Buy a Low-Cost Desktop PC
Hearing the words “budget desktop PC” may conjure some negative vibes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the desktop-computer world, inexpensive is not synonymous with low-quality or slow, especially in 2019.
Whether you’re replacing a older, flagging PC, setting up a digital signage solution, or equipping a new or temporary office that needs only simple computing, a budget or mini PC may do the job. Today’s budget desktops offer a modest baseline for performance and decent flexibility, while lasting longer than they used to. We’re talking about desktops that cost at most $ 500, with some coming in under $ 200.
Now, these may not be what you normally picture when imagining a desktop, but you’d be surprised at the capability of some of these small boxes and sticks. These PCs are certainly able to surf the web, stream videos to a monitor or big TV, operate a public display, or allow you to work on simple documents and other everyday productivity tasks. They can even run web-based games, should you have the need. They come in a few different shapes and sizes, all tending to the small.
Shopping for a budget desktop isn’t too different from standard desktop-shopping considerations, but there are some differences. Mini PCs tend to come in a limited set of models to choose among, while the “stick”-style PCs tend to be inflexible in configuration, as they’re tightly designed to do what they do well. Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini-PC line, on the other hand, is highly configurable, with plenty of variation among its models. These machines can be bought as fully configured systems, or, for the more DIY-minded, as barebones kits that enable you to install components of your choice.
Intel is a big player, but not the only one, when it comes to small, inexpensive desktops. Compact-system specialists such as Azulle, ECS, Shuttle, and Zotac focus on this area, and some broader PC players such as Asus have offerings in this category, too. Apple, alas, has taken the Apple Mac Mini out of budget-desktop contention with its pricing of its 2018 relaunch. (Models start at $ 799.) But there are plenty of Windows 10- and Linux-based options out there.
Read on to see what to look for in these systems, and what kind of components you can find inside. If you’re interested specifically in tiny PCs but budget is less of a factor, also check out our picks for favorite micro-desktops overall.
First, Consider the Form Factor
What’s immediately obvious about most of these budget PCs? How they look.
There’s no big, traditional tower with such inexpensive products. Instead, you’ll mostly find impressively small boxes, microtowers, and even some stick-shaped PCs that look like super-sized USB drives. The smallest of these systems measure just a couple of inches tall and only a few more across, which is hard not to admire in itself when they’re running full Windows 10. As such, they save you not just money, but space, which can be crucial in certain use cases. If you want to just plug one in out of sight behind a monitor or HDTV, you’ll hardly remember it’s there.
Despite the small sizes, our favorites still offer a respectable number of ports. The best of these boxes offer plenty of physical connectivity and expansion options, which make them versatile depending on the deployment. If you need to connect displays, peripherals, or add storage, there’s an option here for you.
The main exceptions to that are some stick PCs, but Intel’s pioneering Compute Stick still manages to fit several USB ports and offers wireless connectivity. They plug right into the back of the monitor for extremely simple setup, as well.
Component Check: What’s Inside?
It should come as no shock that you’ll find lower-power processors in these less-expensive desktops, but you may be surprised just how capable they are for the size and price.
CPU advancements mean that the floor is higher than it used to be. All of them will have at least dual-core CPUs (some have quad-core chips), and most take just a few seconds to boot up. Some of the more expensive options even include a bonafide Intel Core i5 processor, even if it’s a power-sipping variant.
For any of these, web browsing, streaming video, displaying data, and working in simple documents is a snap. They’re hardly workstations (you’ll still want a more powerful and more expensive chip if you’re planning on editing media or holding web conferences for business with multiple participants), so it’s important to tailor your expectations to the specs. At the very least, have an idea of the most strenuous tasks you’ll throw at this machine to determine if a budget desktop can fit the bill.
Moving on to memory, which will help move those tasks along smoothly, most of these systems in the $ 100 to $ 200 range will come with 2GB, really only enough for signage situations or extremely low-demand, single applications such as word processors. An increasing number come with a basic 4GB, though, especially in the $ 200-plus range.
Storage is an area you may have to set expectations around, as capacities are seldom very high; these types of desktops are not meant to store huge amounts of files. On the lowest end, you’ll get as little as 32GB or 64GB of what’s called eMMC flash storage, similar to what’s offered in most Chromebooks. (It’s roughly the equivalent of an internal flash drive or SD card.) Pay a bit more, though, and you can net 64GB or 128GB; give preference to models that call out their storage as solid-state drives (SSDs) versus eMMC.
Look for higher-capacity storage if you’re a serial downloader, but as evidenced by Chromebooks, internet-connected devices can get away with a lot less local storage thanks to the cloud. Flash storage and SSD will be norm in this class of system, as most models are too small for conventional 3.5-inch hard drives, but some can take 2.5-inch drive upgrades. If you ever need more storage space, USB 3.0 and USB-C ports will also let you attach a speedy external hard drive or SSD.
These machines will almost exclusively come with the integrated graphics built into the CPU, not a discrete Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon graphics card. The latter are what’s needed for real gaming experiences or 3D applications, which are several tiers above what these PCs offer. At best, integrated graphics can run some less-demanding games at low detail settings and resolutions, or very visually simple and 2D games smoothly. It goes without saying that an enthusiast gamer should look elsewhere (check out our favorite cheap gaming laptops and gaming desktops), but you could still get away with some light gaming on these. Models with dedicated graphics cards start a little higher than the $ 500 range, in machines (often AMD-based) like the HP Pavilion Gaming Desktop 690.
Internal Upgrades: In Some Cases, Possible
Despite these smaller systems being inexpensive options, not all of them are set in stone once you buy. Small and inexpensive doesn’t rule out upgrades, especially for the more customizable offerings like the Intel NUC series. If you’re someone who will tinker, or who works in a professional setting deploying PCs for business use, with the NUCs and systems like them, you can add RAM or swap in a roomier drive to suit your needs. Consult your options at the time of purchase. As a general rule, the smaller the chassis, the fewer your upgrade options.
That said, keep your expectations in check. An eMMC boot drive won’t itself be upgradable (it’s made up of soldered-down chips), but in some unusual cases you might be able to add a secondary SSD or hard drive alongside the eMMC drive as extra storage. The computing sticks from Intel and its kind are resolutely not upgradable. Also, in many compact, cheap desktops, the CPU and RAM are not socketed and removable, but part of the mainboard.
Mini- or micro-towers, meanwhile, will give you the most flex in terms of upgrades. That said, be aware of limitations that might be posed by the chassis size or the internal power supply. A tiny tower might technically have a removable lid and the slot space for a video card, but the power supply might not have the wattage oomph to push it, or the chassis might be low-hanging and allow for the installation only of half-height cards, which would severely limit your upgrade options.
…and Then There’s Pi
Beyond budget Windows machines, of course, is the ultimate cheap DIY machine: the incredibly inexpensive Raspberry Pi.
The Pi, in its various iterations, is no more than a canvas of a bare circuit board. (See our review of the latest iteration, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+, and the slightly more capable Pi 3 Model B+.) But this series of flexible “hobby board” systems allows you to create whatever lightweight computer you need and are capable of assembling from simple beginnings.
The Pi computers themselves are quite inexpensive. (The models mentioned above are $ 25 and $ 35, respectively.) Configuring and using the Pi will take some experimenter’s spirit, a few added dongles, and a willingness to work with a form of Linux. You’ll need to factor in the cost of some storage (a microSD card), a case for the PCB (usually a trivial expense), and cables, for starters.
Don’t think of the Raspberry Pi, in most cases, as a replacement for a full-on working or productivity system. It doesn’t have a level of power or user-friendliness for general-usage situations like that. However, for certain use cases, it’s just what you need: for powering a robot, running a weather station, serving as a media server, acting as a light web server. Its usefulness is limited only by your patience to learn the Linux-based lingo surrounding the various OSs, and your willingness to tweak.
Mind Those Few Extras…
One big caveat to your cheap desktop dreams, whether Windows-based, a Pi, or something else: You’ll still need a monitor. To be fair, this is no different than buying a standard screenless tower PC, unless you were to buy an all-inclusive all-in-one desktop. In this instance, though, the added cost hurts extra given you’re trying to be thrifty. Still, if you need to invest in a panel, don’t fret. You can find good, serviceable 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) displays starting just under $ 100. That’s for a nice, roomy 23-incher.
Ideally, you may even have a monitor from a past system, and key peripherals such as a keyboard and mouse to go with it. (We have you covered if you want to shop for a keyboard or mouse, too, by the way.) Using a TV as a monitor is also an option for a system with an HDMI-out port, if you’re in a situation where you can display your PC onto a TV that’s already set up. This is especially useful for stick PCs, as they can plug right in to an HDMI port on the TV and need no major cable runs for setup in a living room, lobby, or anywhere else a PC may look unsightly. Indeed, small PCs like these make excellent PCs for powering a home theater for streaming, file playback from a network drive, and the like.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
If you’re replacing an older system that has become a bit too slow or worn out, or are setting up a new space and need something simple, a budget desktop may be in your future. Check out our recommendations list below for some of our favorites. If you’d like a more traditional tower and can swing the extra money, check out our overall top desktop picks or alternately, our favorite cheap laptops.
Best Budget Desktop Computers Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: A usable Linux PC for $ 35. Easy to set up. Extremely customizable.
Cons: Ethernet port can’t reach theoretical maximum speed of 1Gbps. Heat problems under heavy computing loads.
Bottom Line: With a faster processor and better networking than its predecessor, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ is so much more than a $ 35 computer if you’re comfortable running Linux and tinkering with hardware.
Pros: 4K video capable; five USB ports; HDMI 2.0 port; IR remote is great
Cons: Can’t upgrade RAM
Bottom Line: The Byte3 is a tiny, flexible, semi-powerful Windows 10 desktop PC for $ 200…if you can believe that.
Pros: Class-leading performance. Light, compact design. Includes Windows 10. Plugs directly into an HDMI port on a monitor or TV. Plentiful memory and storage. Equipped with lots of expansion and connectivity options, including three USB 3.0 ports. Three-year warranty.
Cons: Only one USB-C port. USB mouse and keyboard are required for initial wireless setup.
Bottom Line: Powered by a Core m3 processor, the Intel Compute Stick excels as a fully functional PC that fits in your pocket and can use a TV as a display.
Pros: Tiny build for a full Windows 10 PC. Low price. Plenty of connectivity options, including 4K HDMI support. Expandable storage and memory. Includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless connectivity. Three-year warranty.
Cons: Only 2GB of memory and 32GB of flash storage included.
Bottom Line: The NUC6CAYS model of the Intel NUC Kit is a small, versatile, upgradable, and highly affordable desktop PC with the same basic feature set as that of a much larger machine.
Pros: Low price. Compact build. Plenty of I/O ports. Expandable memory and storage. M.2 solid-state drive (SSD). 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Ships with VESA mount. Three-year warranty.
Cons: Only 2GB of memory and a 32GB SSD. Doesn’t come with a keyboard or mouse.
Bottom Line: The Shuttle XPC Nano ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) desktop PC is an inexpensive and highly appealing choice if you want to connect a PC to an HDTV, have a desire to tinker, or both.
Pros: Impressive compact design. Simple plug-and-play setup through HDMI. Ethernet port. Full Windows 10.
Cons: Single USB port limits peripheral options. Windows takes up almost half the available storage space. Lacks dual-band Wi-Fi.
Bottom Line: Azulle’s Quantum Access Stick is an inexpensive Windows 10 PC that fits in the palm of your hand. Functionality and connectivity are basic, but it’s very easy to set up and use, and the Ethernet port is a nice bonus.
Pros: Costs less than a movie ticket. Integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Cons: Most connections require adapters, which come separately. Only one micro USB port. Significantly slower than full-sized options.
Bottom Line: Add some accessories, and the Raspberry Pi Zero W is a full PC for pocket change, but its potential for DIY electronic projects is its real draw.
Pros: Fits in your pocket. Plugs directly into an HDMI port on a monitor or TV. Includes USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. Supports dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Uses 64-bit Windows. Headset jack.
Cons: Lacks a microSD card slot. 2GB of memory and only 15GB of free storage space. Remote app needs work.
Bottom Line: The Asus VivoStick is a full 64-bit Windows 10 computer that’s a lot smaller than a hip flask, or even a cigar tube. It’s short on memory and storage, but can instantly turn a display or TV into an all-in-one PC for $ 129.
Pros: Tiny and inexpensive for experimental implementations. Quad-core processor. User-friendly, even for Linux newbies. Includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Cons: Only one USB port. Can’t be overclocked. Half the memory of the Model B+.
Bottom Line: The latest-gen Raspberry Pi in a smaller, cheaper form, the Pi 3 Model A+ is a no-brainer for Pi enthusiasts, even though it lacks the increased memory and port selection of the larger Model B+.