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
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.
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