Budget desktop PCs buying advice (September issue)
Processor: You’re not going to get the fastest processors at this price, but there are some excellent, affordable chips around if you can find them. Intel’s Core 2 Duo E8400 is a stand-out component and features in three of our sub-£500 PCs. If you can find an E8500, it’s even better.
We’re also now seeing some quad- and triple-core processors in this price range, in the form of the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 and AMD’s latest Phenom X4 9550 and Phenom X3 8450 chips.
Don’t be tempted to buy older Intel Pentium D chips – their performance is a long way behind today’s Core 2 Duos.
Memory: In this Vista-dominated age, 2GB is almost a requirement. You may be able to make do with 1GB, but we wouldn’t recommend it. We’re now seeing some sub-£500 PCs fitted with 4GB.
Make sure you’re getting the full benefit of the memory – some onboard graphics controllers use system memory, which will slow things down. And check your motherboard has free memory slots if you plan to upgrade later.
Storage: You can never have too much storage space. Digital media content such as video and music files will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive, so buy the biggest you can. A 250GB drive is a good investment, although hard-drive space is relatively easy to add later. If you’re planning to upgrade hard drives internally, make sure you’ve got enough free drive bays in your system case.
Look for a DVD drive that can write to the -R/+R formats at 16-speed or better. If you want to copy 8.5GB at once, get a drive that can write to DVD-R DL and +R DL at 12- and eight-speed respectively. Keep an eye out for some of the new 22-speed models too.
Flat-panel: PC manufacturers have to make compromises to squeeze machines into this category, and often start with the monitor. But you don’t want to spend all of your computing time looking at a poor-quality display.
All the PCs in our chart come with flat-panels. The most common size is 19in – the quality of larger monitors is unlikely to be good enough at this price. We don’t see many CRTs, but they can still be a pretty good deal. Provided you can put up with the bulky casing, colour depth tends to be better than with flat-panels.
Graphics cards: With the best graphics cards retailing for £300 or £400, a sub-£500 PC is unlikely to satisfy a hardcore gamer. Nonetheless, the best machines in this category come with decent cards.
You should be looking for PCs that can produce 50 frames per second (fps) if you’re going to be playing games – 70fps or 80fps is better still. The fastest chip in this price range is currently the GeForce 8800 GS, but including one of these may require compromises elsewhere.
The GeForce 8600s are a good alternative. They can support DirectX 10.0, but they’re unlikely to be powerful enough to make the most of tomorrow’s DirectX 10.0 games. They’ve got plenty of pace to tackle today’s games.
Sound card and speakers: You’re unlikely to get a standalone sound card at this price – it’s an area where most vendors try to cut costs. Most motherboards have decent built-in chips that can handle six-channel sound. To get the best out of them you’ll need a 5.1 system (five speakers and a subwoofer), but most people will be happy with stereo two-channel audio. You won’t necessarily get separate speakers or a sub at all.
Depending on your point of view, the CyberPower Gamer Ultra 750 looks either incredibly cool or ridiculous. Performance-wise, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations.