You may not want one as your primary PC, but if you're after a basic system you could do worse than snap up a real bargain costing as little as £143 ex VAT. Here, PC Advisor assesses the pros and cons of buying a really low-cost PC.
Every month PC Advisor rigorously tests the latest desktop PCs, ranking and rating them into price categories, starting with an 'entry-level' category that covers systems costing less than £500 including VAT.
Many of the low-cost models we test cost around £499 inc VAT (see reviews section), because manufacturers want to produce well-specced systems and we recommend only the best PCs. But it's escaped neither our notice nor yours that it's possible to buy even cheaper systems than those found in our charts. So we decided to take a snapshot of the new systems available for only a tiny outlay.
Sure, you may think, there are plenty of ways to undercut that headline price: eBay, computer fairs, buying a refurbished model or purchasing from another non-standard outlet. But these deals come with a huge (but invisible) tag stating 'Buyer Beware'.
So we avoided end-of-line examples that clutter up clearance corners, or XP-based setups that PC retailers are desperate to get shot of. We're giving an overview of PCs bought from established web retailers and high-street stores.
You can always rely on PC Advisor to give it to you straight,
and some of the PC setups we looked at are challenged in various ways.
There are systems supplied as PCs only – some are missing a keyboard, a mouse and some even lack a screen. However, we thoroughly check out these deals because there are a number of reasons why an ultra low-cost system might appeal to you. Perhaps you already own all the peripherals you need and simply want a second PC or a more powerful one than you already own? After all, a decent screen will generally need upgrading less often than will a computer.
Most of the PCs we looked at, however, are the full monty, with relatively powerful processors, good-sized hard drives, a DVD writer and are supplied with a screen as well as standard peripherals.
So without further ado, let's have a look at what's available.
Bagging a PC bargain
First, let's address the eyecatching deals that are advertised on the TV and online. It's no secret that the profit margins on PCs have been reduced to all but zero. So first up, consider why a company may be offering a PC for sale to you at the price it would cost them to buy it component for component.
Companies such as Dell and HP have purchasing power on their side. These worldwide IT companies are better placed to put together a system for a very low price. In order to be competitive and keep up with these huge companies, lesser-known PC retailers do their best to match prices.
And too often, they fail.
A great example is Time Computers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Time was the UK's largest home-grown computer retailer. It put together systems, filled them to bursting with software of varying standards, then priced its overblown bundles to move. And move they did. Attractive financing options were a great encouragement to consumers keen to buy a home PC for the first time. And for students and others on tight budgets, such deals were impossible to resist.
With the turn of the century came the Millennium Bug and the bursting of the dotcom bubble. From here on in, things were never the same. Consumers, having upgraded their systems just in case there was substance in the millennium myth (whereby PCs would freeze having failed to make the change from 99 to 2000), lost interest. The market went flat and businesses decided to stick with the PCs they had.
The PC goldrush was over. Desktop sales tailed off – although portable computing came into its own – and selling ever-cheaper systems seemed to be the only way forward. PC e-tailers who would undercut whatever price they fixed on went to the wall, trying too hard for their own financial survival to keep up with the online Joneses.
PC companies have wised up and it's fair to say that many of the headline offers that entice you into a store or website are there only for that purpose. That's not to say you can't buy one of these systems, but it's likely that the PC bundle you went in for won't be the one you get, as you are tempted to upgrade. At the very least you're unlikely to pay the price you thought you were going to.
Even if you're hell-bent on doing so, there are plenty of considerations before handing over your credit card or setting up a Direct Debit. Is the PC on offer actually what you want? What sorts of things do you envisage using your PC for and will it be capable of performing these tasks comfortably? We increasingly expect to be able to multitask, especially if we're accustomed to using a relatively powerful PC at work.
Are you used to browsing the web, checking email, opening images, viewing a crafty YouTube clip or viral flash animation and having multiple Office documents open all at once? Bargain PCs aren't capable of this level of task-juggling.
If you're looking for a family PC on which various users will be dumping content of all sorts, including hefty video files and mountains of photos, you'll need to consider whether the hard drive is sufficiently capacious. And whether it will be tasked with making something meaningful out of this year's long-awaited two-week sojourn somewhere sunny. Again, an ultra-cheap PC probably won't cut the mustard.
But we don't want to put you off the idea of buying a cut-price PC. There are plenty of tasks to which even the most inexpensive system is able to turn its attention. The sorts of tasks we routinely expect of today's PCs are way beyond the abilities of what was considered a relatively well-equipped system only three or four years ago.
Similarly, some of the most critical criteria concern your PC's connectivity with other pieces of kit, rather than its base specifications. A good web connection, card reader, CD writer and DVD drive are important considerations that shouldn't affect the overall price beyond a few pounds. Ports to plug in items such as cameras, printers, speakers and MP3 players, plus external drives to back up and boost storage capacity, fall under the same heading.
Horses for courses
If this is to be your one-and-only PC, you'll want to be 100 percent sure it fulfils all your computing criteria. Before you go anywhere near a specific system, make a checklist.
A processor approaching 2GHz will be able to cope with most everyday tasks, but the pricier systems starting at £750 or so have dual-core chips (two processors) to share the workload (see reviews section).
These PCs are markedly better at dealing with multiple tasks. While models such as the Gateway GM5066 have an Intel Core 2 processor at their heart, you're far more likely to end up with an older, single-core Pentium 4 system. These offer hyperthreading – which helps manage several processes at once – but certainly won't be up to running Vista.
If you are keen on Vista, you'll need at least 1GB of RAM to run the home Premium version. Less than this and you'll run into real performance problems running routine tasks. There's nothing wrong with XP and, since it's been around for more than five years, Microsoft has had time to address any issues with it. XP is less demanding and will run happily on almost any PC.
Realistically, a full-blown Vista-based PC will cost quite a lot more than the £200 or so outlay of the really cheap systems you can buy new. This is why we suggest that if you have an existing screen – regardless of whether it's a cramped 15in CRT or TFT – you make use of this saving to buy a better base unit.
However, as you'll see from a quick scout around the relevant websites, as little as £300 inc VAT will secure you an Acer desktop PC with a 15.4in flat-panel and a copy of Vista Home Basic. Lose the screen and it's yours for just £220.
Similarly, PCNextDay, which sells the Zoostorm range of PCs and laptops, has base units starting at £165 inc VAT. Even if you don't already have a suitable screen, you can pick up one for around £60 from sites such as ebuyer.co.uk.
We suggest you grab an additional RAM module while you're at it if you've plumped for a Vista PC. Many vendors may even preinstall the module for you, saving you the hassle of opening the case and delving into your PC's innards. Companies such as Dell and Evesham have online configurators with which you choose any components you wish and will end up with the exact PC you want. Similarly, you can select an inexpensive base unit, such as Mesh's £229 Matrix S+, click the Configure button and boost the RAM from 512MB to a more respectable 1GB for just £50.
Towers of strength
You don't have to ignore design simply because you're on a budget. Although most desktops below £400 will be bland-looking tower units, perhaps distinguishable from your office PC with a shiny black or metallic case, you do have options.
Shuttle specialises in barebones PCs smaller than the standard tower. Hobbyists and retailers then turn these squat cubes into fully fledged PCs – the £399 Sqube that Evesham is selling is a good example. Note, however, that it can be trickier to upgrade a PC housed in a smaller case – and, in this case, based around a smaller mini ATX motherboard – as there's less space for graphics cards, cooling systems and so forth.
We like Apple's Mac mini too, which costs the same amount as the Sqube.
Both the Mac mini and the Sqube take up far less room than a bulky tower PC and look classier than a beige box, which you may prefer if it's going to be on prominent display.
Intel Viiv systems come with a modest price tag and are specifically designed to blend in with a home environment. Better yet, they're geared up to play music, video and display photos, taking at least one step away from the traditional office or study environment.
Viiv PCs use Microsoft's Windows Media Center interface as the basis of their entertainment-centric setup and often come with remote controls – handy for flicking through photo and music collections.
Some of the best designs can be found on laptops and, as you will see from the PC Advisor reviews section, pricing for the best value portables is similar to that of low-cost desktop PCs. Granted, you won't get quite such a good specification. But if style and space are as important as price, and you don't need bags of processing power, we urge you to consider one.
Dress to excess
The bells and whistles may not affect performance, but you'll certainly want a DVD player, if not a DVD writer, built into your low-cost PC.
At the very least expect a combined CD-RW drive that can play DVDs. The Zoostorm model featured here has the lowest price tag and a 52-speed CD rewriter, so you'll need to decide whether this is a compromise too far.
In the upper price category – £399 PC bundles with screens, keyboards and mice – you'll get a DVD-RW drive to archive photos and video. You should opt for the model with the largest hard disk, since even the most capacious will quickly fill with memory-hungry applications, images, music files and so on.
Don't settle for less than an 80GB hard drive. You shouldn't have to, given that a £330 Ei system from pcworld.co.uk offers a 160GB hard disk, a CD-RW/DVD-R drive and a 15in flat-panel display.
What you may have to accept, however, is integrated graphics. Few £200-£300 systems have dedicated video cards. Tell-tale signs on the specification list are shared, integrated or onboard graphics. While onboard graphics have improved, for Vista use as well as decent gameplay and DVD playback, a dedicated card will make a huge difference. You'll be able to add a graphics card at a later date if you can't now afford a system that comes with its own.
Connectivity-wise you'll want USB ports a-plenty, since so many peripherals connect this way. Check how many are placed conveniently at the front of the PC, as many sites list the overall number without stating that all but one or two are hidden round the back of the tower so aren't easily accessible.
Ideally, you'll want a FireWire connection too, along with at least a five-in-one card reader. This way, you'll be able to get content such as photos and video on to your PC. You'll also be able to archive hard drive contents as efficiently as possible.
Buy now, don't pay later
Above all, don't be afraid to ask questions – in the shop, on the phone or by email. Print out the full specification list and request a breakdown of what hardware and software the PC comes with before placing your order.
Most firms seem to add a delivery charge at the end of the online purchase process when they know you're unlikely to back out. The larger supermarket chains sell some of the examples we've outlined here – avoid delivery costs by picking up your PC from the store. But the best deals are online,
so set aside £5 to £25 for delivery.
Don't feel you have to buy a PC now, just because you've seen a bargain. The deals we tracked down were the best ones around as we wrote this feature and, barring a run on £200 PCs without screens, will still be available when you act on our buying advice. And if they aren't, comparable deals will be – they may even be cheaper. That's the nature of consumer technology: there's never a good time to buy a PC, but there's rarely a bad time either. Happy hunting.
Getting a warranty - next page >>
What to look for in a warranty
This may the point at which you decide that a 'bargain' isn't such a good deal after all. If you're an experienced PC user who has a regular backup routine, meticulously stores installation discs, makes a recovery disc on delivery of a new PC and keeps meticulous records of product keys, a basic warranty will be fine.
(But if you're that sort of person, you probably advise your friends, family and work colleagues on technology matters and could write this feature just as well as, well, us.)
For the rest of us, however, a warranty is crucial. You should expect to get a basic return-to-base warranty of at least one year's duration on any system you buy. This applies even if you're simply after a base unit. By contrast, if you're building your own PC and buying a barebones system with only a motherboard and processor inside a case, you may find yourself with just six months cover on the individual components.
Many online sites will try to add a warranty to your list, or suggest it as part of the PC and screen package you select. Extended warranties can be notoriously poor value and, if you've any intention of delving inside your
PC at any point between taking delivery and ushering it into retirement, you'll invalidate it anyway.
Assuming the PC works out-of-the-box, it's far more likely to go wrong due to a piece of software or a hardware driver you've installed (or to a virus infection) than it is for any of the hardware to fail. And software, except any that the PC retailer preinstalled, is never covered by your warranty.
To get more than the standard year or two of cover, you'll typically need to fork out around £100. Be cautious about buying a warranty longer than this, particularly if you're buying from a bargain website. If the company goes under, as has happened to far too many budget PC retailers, you'll have lost your money. Even if another company buys out the failed business, getting support from the new owner is by no means a given.
Finally, if you're buying a branded PC from a supermarket site, make sure you find out which company is responsible for supporting your system. It almost certainly won't be the online retailer.