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.
By Brad Chacos
PCWorldSep 27, 2016 3:00 am PDT
These days, practically every household needs a computer. Even if your job doesn’t require you to peddle presentations after hours, everything from shopping to budgeting to keeping in touch with friends is a vastly more convenient with a keyboard and mouse. And who can resist the occasional foray into the spectacular world of YouTube “fail” videos?
Here’s how to build a cheap PC that can expertly handle all the “normal stuff” people do—web browsing, Office tasks, email, video playback, you name it—and do so on a tight budget. In fact, at less than $300, this budget PC is far cheaper than the average $448 selling price of Windows laptops, while still far less pokey than the cheap-o $250 Chromebooks stuffed with Celeron processors. And you’ll have a full keyboard and mouse to get stuff done. We didn’t actually build and test this configuration, but as with our $500 gaming PC build, this is what I would put together if I wanted an ultra-affordable PC that won’t chug under the weight of Word documents.
Got it? Good. Let’s start with the heart of it all.
While graphics cards are the cornerstone of a gaming PC, this computer isn’t built to power digital adventures. It’s focused on the normal tasks people perform. So we’ll bypass graphics cards completely and start with the heart of this particular PC: Intel’s 3.3GHz Pentium G4400 processor ($59.14 on Newegg).
You can find cheaper chips, but the Pentium G4400 strikes a superb balance of power and price. It’s roughly half the cost of the cheapest Core i3 processor, but blows away AMD’s similarly priced A6-7600K APU ($51.95 at Amazon) in performance, according to Hardware Secrets. The CPU should handle basic everyday tasks without frustrating slowdowns—exactly what you want from a cheap PC.
The Pentium G4400’s onboard Intel HD 510 Graphics are as entry-level as entry level gets, but the chip still plays 1080p videos without issue as long as you aren’t performing an intensive task in the background at the same time. This processor isn’t really made for video processing or gaming, Legit Reviews’ testing shows, but that’s not what a PC like this is made for anyway. If you do decide to dabble in gaming, Legit Reviews says the G4400 holds up nicely if you slap a discrete graphics card next to it. (Just watch out for PC games that require four processor cores.)
The Pentium G4400 also provides a solid upgrade path if you want to give your PC more oomph in the future. It’s built using Intel’s 14nm Skylake architecture, so you can swap in a Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 Skylake chip for much more potency if your computing needs ramp up. What’s more, Intel’s next-gen Kaby Lake chips are expected to use the same motherboards as Skylake when they release in 2017.
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Gigabyte GA-H110M-A motherboard
I’m going to go with the same motherboard suggested in my $500 gaming PC build, Gigabyte’s GA-H110M-A ($45 on Amazon). But while it was a matter of balancing the budget in the budget gaming build, here it’s a matter of practicality.
The Gigabyte GA-H110M-A features Intel’s H110 chipset—by far the most bare-bones Skylake motherboard technology available. You won’t be overclocking the Pentium or using cutting-edge NVMe SSDs here. But you aren’t looking for those sorts of features in a PC built for web surfing, document slinging, and video playback. You might as well save cash by skipping upgrades you don’t need.
You only need 4GB of memory in a PC designed for everyday tasks. The Crucial Ballistix Sport LT DDR4 ($20 on Amazon) delivers that in a single RAM stick, leaving the other memory slot on your motherboard open in case you decide to get into gaming and add another 4GB down the line.
Take note: If you decide to go with another memory option, Skylake motherboards require newer DDR4 memory, not DDR3.
Again, we’re going for practicality here. Solid-state drives are the single best upgrade you can make in a PC, but while SSD prices are plummeting, traditional hard drives remain far more affordable. Western Digital’s 1TB Blue hard drive ($50 on Amazon) packs plenty of space for everybody’s files, and that “Blue” designation means its platters spin at a brisk 7,200RPM, making it one of the faster mechanical hard drives available.
You don’t need a big power supply for a PC this modest. A mere 300-watt unit would suffice, according to Outervision’s PSU calculator. But here’s the thing: EVGA’s 500 W1 ($37.48 on Amazon) actually costs slightly less than the cheapest decent 300W to 400W power supply I could find on Newegg, Seasonic’s SSR-350ST at $40. The Seasonic unit features 80 Plus Bronze certification that the EVGA 500 W1 lacks, but EVGA’s a trusted name in power supplies. You might as well get more power for less money in case you decide to add more storage drives or expand to gaming later.
Yes, you can find no-name or OEM power supplies for less, but don’t go down that road. A bad power supply can blow up your whole system. It’s worth investing in a known brand.
Next page: Final hardware picks, software, extras, and adding it all up
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.
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.
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.
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
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.