Ask LH: What Matters Most When Buying A Cheap PC?

Ask LH: What Matters Most When Buying A Cheap PC?

Hi Lifehacker, I am in the market to buy a cheap PC for home use. I’m looking for something inexpensive, but am having a hard time understanding the jargon PC stores are throwing at me. What should I really be looking for? Thanks, Hard Times

PC component picture from Shutterstock

Dear HT,

I’m going to assume you’re after a cheap desktop for basic computing tasks, as opposed to a gaming or home theatre PC. (For either of those, you’re better off building your own machine — you can find advice on how to do so here and here respectively.)

Things to look for

When it comes to choosing between cheap desktop PCs, the most important considerations are RAM/memory and storage capacity. The central processing unit (CPU) is generally less important — just make sure it doesn’t have ‘Pentium’ in the title and you should be OK.

Most entry-level desktops will come with between 4GB and 6GB of RAM which is plenty for basic day-to-day computing tasks. 4GB is sufficient to run Windows 7 or 8, although you may struggle with taxing software applications such as HD video editors. Thankfully, RAM is one of the easiest PC components to upgrade and it’s also relatively affordable, so you can always add more memory to your system if you need it.

As for storage, you’re going to want 500GB at an absolute minimum. If you plan to build up a library of HD movies, I’d plump for at least twice that amount. Much like RAM, storage isn’t too pricey these days — we’ve seen 1TB drives in pre-built desktops that cost under $500 in total.

To make life easier, look for a model with a built-in memory card reader and plenty of USB connectivity (front-facing 3.0 ports are especially important). You can also save time and money by grabbing an all-in-one system which will come with a monitor, keyboard and mouse in addition to the actual desktop.

If you opt for a Windows-based all-in-one PC, I’d eschew touch screen functionality and pick a Windows 7 machine. This will land you more bang for your buck in terms of computing power. On the other hand, if you’re keen to get a Mac, you’ll probably want to go down the refurbished route to keep costs down. These are second-hand models that have been tested and certified by Apple.

Things to avoid

Many retailers and manufacturers will highlight the included software as a key selling point. You need to take these claims with a grain of salt. Often, you’re only getting a trial or “light” version with limited features. These are a waste of storage space and can even slow down your system. In other words, don’t base your purchasing decision on which PC has the most “free” software.

You might find some entry-level machines with solid state drives (SSDs) but you’re probably better off avoiding these: the speed and performance gains aren’t worth the drop in capacity, especially if you’re only using it for basic applications.

No matter how persuasive the sales representative is, don’t get conned into paying for an extended warranty: as we have noted in the past, these are essentially a tax on the gullible. Under Australia consumer protection laws, goods are expected to operate for a reasonable length of time. You’d be in a strong position to argue that it wasn’t reasonable to expect your new PC to break down in under three years, regardless of what the warranty states.

We’re also keen to hear any reader recommendations: share your PC buying tips with HT in the comments section below.

See also: The Best PCs You Can Build For $700 And $1400 | How To Save Money When Building Your Own PC | Windows 8 Ultimate Buyers Guide: Choosing The Right Form Factor For You


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Category: Productivity


  • Hmm, when providing links to building a PC (talking about parts to buy), would have thought posts from 2012 would probably be outdated / irrelevant, but thats just me.

  • I’d have thought a SSD would be a big bonus?
    Disk has been the performance bottle neck for a long, long time. You notice the improvement in performance when moving to a SSD alot more than adding more RAM or stepping up to the next level of CPU.
    It costs very little to add in an additional large capacity Hard drive for all those movies and music.

  • Hi, why don’t you just put a task on airtasker or similar website for someone to build you a PC for $500 (that can be done), and give them $50 to do so. you’ll have something more powerful than buying a ready made PC and you’ll have someone with some IT knowledge to put the things together for you. I’m building a PC for my father and would have taken a deal like that in airtasker if I had seen one. Just my 2 cents worth of comment in there 🙂

  • I get asked this question at least once a week.

    Consider i5. Consider 16GB RAM even if it’s a little slower. Consider an SSD. Just about everything else either changes so often (Video Cards) the sweet spot is always in motion or you can get so bogged down that you don’t even know what the differences really are (motherboards).

    • 16GB in a cheap PC? Wow! Considering 16GB of DDR3 RAM starts around the $170 mark, you could easily cope with 6GB or even 4GB. Unless you are doing something taxing such as video eiditing/photo editing running virtual machines etc, in which case the amount of RAM in a cheap PC isn’t going to be issue.

      Personally, i3 with an SSD, 4GB RAM = more than fast enough for most people to use. If you want to work it harder, get the i5, want more storage? Add a HDD. Hope to play games, then get a dedicated video card, don’t bother otherwise the integrated video is fine for everything but.

      The most important thing to look at is the warranty, length, what it covers etc. Most cheap PCs get skimped out with 12 month warranty, but I’d look for 3 at least because even a cheap PC should last you that long!

    • these are not cheap pc specs. In parts alone an i5 processor and 16gb of DDR3 is going to be above the $350 mark. Add to that 100-150 for a MB, 100 for storage, upwards of 100 for even a basic graphics card and probably 150-200 for other incidentals (case, PSU, disk drives, OS etc) and you are well into mid range territory

    • I think you missed the title. “Cheap PC”.

      Here’s my standard bill of materials:
      * Intel i3 CPU
      * AsRock H87M Motherboard
      * 8GB Ram
      * 1TB (2TB if you’re feeling generous) HDD
      * Windows 7 64 Bit
      * Case with 350W PSU
      * $20 DVDR-W

  • I have a laptop from a year ago running on a pentium cpu. It runs great and fast. I only use it for video, internet and general use stuff though. To say that pentiums are bad is sorta stupid. If you want cheap go pentium, just make sure it is a modern pentium cpu. Old ones are shit.

  • I’d be looking at how well can it be upgraded, can the mobo take more RAM? A better video card? Better processor? The immediate specs are not something you need to look at in a cheap PC, you’ll want to be able to improve upon it later.

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