The UK's biggest PC bargains could completely change your perception of the cost of hardware. But does the drive towards ever-cheaper computing come at a cost?

You've no doubt seen the newspaper adverts promising unbelievably cheap PCs from reputable manufacturers, but never given them a second glance. Anyone who knows the PC market is suspicious of new PCs for under £300, with the cynicism centred on whether such systems will be able to perform today's demanding tasks without a hiccup.

But is this price category worth considering for second PCs, or perhaps bargain systems for family members?

That's what we set out to investigate, picking out the best deals from high-street retailers, then seeking to shave off another £100 in search of the UK's best PC bargains. We wanted to know just how far you could push PC manufacturers on price and wondered what we could persuade them to put together at a price never before seen in a PC magazine.

The systems in the July 07 issue, on sale now are not eBay cast-offs. They're legitimate deals that make you wonder how cheap PCs can get before suppliers start giving them away with cornflakes.

Well, prepare to be surprised. While the £143 (ex VAT) system that's the cheapest in this month's round-up is incredibly eye-catching, one organisation is already in the midst of blowing away every preconception you have about the value of computer hardware.

The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative plans to deliver laptops to millions of children in emerging economies for $100 a pop, in a move that appears to make a mockery of prices we regard as rock bottom.

When OLPC's computers are released later this year, the children who receive them will be able to email, chat, browse the web and even play music. None of this sounds a million miles away from the tasks most UK computer users perform on a daily basis. Indeed, techies in Western economies would love to get hold of the device and they've been earmarked as possible tools for schoolchildren in the US.

Buyers beware

But here's the reality check. I'd wager that you couldn't spend five minutes on an OLPC laptop without being intensely frustrated at its limitations, no matter how innovative it is.

And, on a smaller scale, the same could probably be said for many of the systems we look at in our bargain PCs feature. To get a productive, future-proofed PC, there really are no shortcuts. With prices already low – take a look at the sub-£500 laptops in the same July 07 issue – most people are prepared to pay a little bit more for a computer that will allow them to get a better PC experience.

Just think about the things you're not going to be able to do with a sub-£200 PC. No fancy, future-proofed Windows Vista Home Premium operating system; not enough memory to watch a video on the web while simultaneously scanning your PC for viruses, and not enough power to play even moderately demanding games.

Our rock-bottom PCs may be perfect for the basics and, rather than One Laptop Per Child, we're increasingly a nation of three PCs per household. So these systems could fulfil a role as a second or third computer for the home. At these prices, many people will have little hesitation in getting out their credit cards. But if you regard yourself as a PC enthusiast, many of these offers may prove too good to be true.