Cheap, but good: How to build a budget PC for less than $300

This affordable desktop will outperform any laptop in the same price range.

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Case

cooler master n200

Cooler Master’s N200 mini tower ($50 on Amazon) is a favorite among budget builders, and for good reason. Its exterior is spartan yet inoffensive, and there’s plenty of room for upgrades—even water-cooling setups if you want to get fancy. The case offers solid ventilation, a pair of preinstalled fans, and a trio of front-side USB ports, one of which is the speedier USB 3.0 variety. That’s a great feature set for an affordable case.

I suggest buying it on Amazon because the shipping’s free; Newegg charges $6 to deliver it. That said, Newegg frequently offers a $20 rebate on this particular case, so take a peek at both places if you plan on picking it up.

Fan splitter

The Gigabyte motherboard features just a single fan header, so you’ll need to pick up a 1-to-2 fan splitter cable like the Silverstone CPFO1 ($4.39 on Amazon) to power the Cooler Master N200’s duo. Any fan splitter will do, really.

Keyboard and mouse

There’s a wide range of keyboard and mice out there. In the interest of keeping costs down, I’m suggesting the affordable AmazonBasics 3-button USB wired mouse ($7 on Amazon) and HP K1500 wired keyboard ($9 on Amazon), both of which have very high ratings from hundreds and hundreds of Amazon users.

Operating system

Here’s where I’m going to toss out a curveball. You should really try using Linux on this PC.

Wait! Stop rolling your eyes. Linux used to be a bear, but now, distros like Ubuntu have become amazingly user friendly, and hardware woes from years past are much rarer now. For basics like web browsing, video playback, and productivity—aka the very things this PC is built for—Linux gets the job done. Chrome behaves the same on any PC, VLC works everywhere, and LibreOffice is a wonderful Microsoft Office replacement. The learning curve is smaller than you’d think.

linux logo cup Eduardo Quagliato via Flickr/Creative Commons

There’s nothing to lose, since Linux distros are free-as-in-beer free. PCWorld’s primers on the best distros for beginners and getting started with Linux can point you in the right direction, while our guide to the best free, open-source software can help you stock your PC with superb programs. A surprising number of excellent PC games even call Linux home these days.

If you decide open-source operating systems aren’t your cup of tea, Windows 10 ostensibly costs $120 on Amazon. But if you head to Kinguin—a sort of eBay for software—you can find licenses for as low as roughly $30. Just be sure to buy the optional buyer protection in case someone in this open market sells you a bad key. I’m not counting OS costs in the total for this PC, though

Extras

I’m also not including the cost of a monitor. That’s standard practice in PC build guides, as many people already have a monitor available, or know someone with a spare. Worst case, you can often find free monitors at local swap shops or on Craigslist, as people look to offload them rather than pay an electronics disposal fee. To wit: I live in an incredibly rural area of New Hampshire and could find three separate freebie monitors within half an hour’s driving distance right now.

If you need to pick one up, however, I’d consider the 20-inch ViewSonic VA2055SM ($85 on Amazon). Not only does it feature a 1080p screen, this model includes integrated speakers. If you don’t mind spending a bit more, HP offers a 21.5-inch monitor ($100 on Amazon) with a step-up IPS screen, which offers super color accuracy and viewing angles. It lacks speakers, though.

Many people also get by just fine without optical disc drives these days. If you need one, though, the Asus DRW-24B1ST ($19.95 on Amazon) rates highly with over 2,600 users, and it can burn DVDs as well as read them.

Adding it all up

And that’s it! Here’s the rundown on the full budget PC build.

  • Intel Pentium G4400 processor - $59.14
  • Gigabyte GA-H110M-A motherboard - $45
  • Ballistix Sport LT DDR4 4GB RAM - $20
  • Western Digital’s 1TB Blue hard drive - $50
  • EVGA’s 500 W1 power supply - $37.48
  • Cooler Master N200 case - $50
  • Silverstone CPFO1 fan splitter - $4.39
  • AmazonBasics 3-button USB wired mouse - $7
  • HP K1500 wired keyboard - $9
  • Ubuntu OS – free

Add it all up and you’re looking at a grand total of $282.01 (though pricing often fluctuates slightly in the world of PC hardware). That’s not shabby at all, and this build would blow away any Chromebook or Windows 10 laptop in its price range, as they all pack processors with far less oomph and smaller hard drives. This build offers a decent path for upgrades if you need more power in the future, too, whereas laptops are forever locked to their initial configuration for all intents and purposes.

Even if you need to pick up a monitor and decide to go with a Kinguin-supplied Windows 10 license, you’re looking at roughly $400 total—about $50 less than the average selling price of a Windows laptop.

thinkstockphotos 101767870 Hemera Technologies / AbleStock

Now you just have to build it!

I’d call that mission accomplished. If you need help assembling it, be sure to check out PCWorld’s extensive PC building tutorial, as well as our guides to common PC building mistakes and 7 things we learned once we built our first PC. They’ll all help a ton.

Would you change anything about this $300 budget PC? I’d love to hear about it. Drop your suggestions and alternative hardware configurations in the comments!

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