Processor: Until recently, Intel’s Core i3 processor had the sub-£500 PC category sewn up. While you’ll still find good value in systems based on this architecture, second-generation Core i5 ‘Sandy Bridge’ chips blow them away in performance terms. Identify these chips by their four-digit model number.
‘K’ versions of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors support overclocking, but you’ll need a pricey Z68- or P67-chipset-based motherboard (the latter also requires a discrete graphics card). A Z68 chipset provides additional support for SSD caching and auto-switching graphics.
Sandy Bridge chips also improve the integrated graphics performance. They provide accelerated graphics encoding, plus VGA and HDMI outputs. The ‘K’ chips come with more powerful integrated graphics than the standard versions. While neither option should be considered fast enough for a true gaming PC, some titles remain quite playable.
Memory: Expect 4GB at this price and don’t settle for less than 2GB. Most CPUs require DDR3 RAM, while older ones can also use DDR2. Check your motherboard has free slots if you plan to upgrade later.
Storage: Falling prices mean that 1TB is well within the budget of even a budget PC. You can never have too much storage space, and digital media will quickly fill a reasonably sized drive. Hard-drive space is easy to add later, however.
If you’re planning to upgrade hard drives internally, ensure that you’ve got spare drive bays inside your PC’s case. Get a drive that can write to the DVD+/-R formats at 16-speed or better. If you want to get 8.5GB on to one disc, get a drive that can write to dual-layer discs at 12- and eight-speed respectively.
Flat-panel: It’s the component you’ll be spending all your time looking at, but PC makers often compromise on the monitor.
Good-quality full-HD monitors are available even in sub-£500 systems. Expect to find a 21.5in model, although these are often marketed as 22in screens. It’s best to get one with dual inputs and a digital connection, letting you get the best image quality available and hook up additional devices.
Graphics card: With the best graphics cards retailing for more than £300, a sub-£500 PC is unlikely to satisfy a hardcore gamer. However, decent graphics cards get cheaper all the time, and budget PCs can now handle games that were unthinkable a few months ago.
Intel’s Core i3 and i5 CPUs come with integrated graphics processors that deliver better performance than older Intel integrated solutions. The new Sandy Bridge chips are even faster and offer features such as dual monitor outputs. These machines support HD video without the need for a separate graphics card.
AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 5450 is a popular choice for a budget PC. It doesn’t offer a great speed advantage over Intel GMA integrated graphics, but it offers support for DirectX 11.0. Many cards can also drive multiple monitors.
If you really want to play games, nVidia’s GeForce GT 240 will provide some extra speed. Be prepared to lower your graphics settings, however.
Power supply: Expect only a basic PSU at this price point. A 450W or 500W model is a good starting point.
Sound card and speakers: You’re unlikely to get a sound card at this price point.