Hearing the words “budget desktop PC” may conjure some negative vibes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the desktop-computer world, inexpensive is not synonymous with low-quality or slow, especially in 2020.
Whether you’re replacing an older, flagging PC, setting up a digital signage solution, or equipping a new or temporary office that needs only simple computing, a budget or mini PC may do the job. Today’s budget desktops offer a modest baseline for performance and decent flexibility, while lasting longer than they used to. We’re talking about desktops that cost $800 at the very most, with many coming in under $500 and a few even below $200.
Now, a handful of these may not be what you normally picture when imagining a desktop, but you’d be surprised at the capability of some of these small boxes. These PCs are certainly able to surf the web, stream videos to a monitor or big TV, operate a public display, or allow you to work on simple documents and other everyday productivity tasks. They can even run web-based games, should you have the need. They come in a few different shapes and sizes, all tending to the small. The closer-to-full-size towers, meanwhile, can do just about everything you expect from a modern home PC.
Shopping for a budget desktop isn’t too different from standard desktop-buying considerations, but there are some differences. If you’re looking at a very small system, mini PCs tend to come in a limited set of models to choose among, tightly designed to do what they do well. Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) mini-PC line is among the most configurable, with plenty of variation among its models. These machines can be bought as fully configured systems, or, for the more DIY-minded, as barebones kits that enable you to install components of your choice.
Intel is a big player, but not the only one, when it comes to small, inexpensive desktops. Compact-system specialists such as Azulle, ECS, Shuttle, and Zotac focus on this area, and some broader PC players such as Asus have offerings in this category, too. Apple has one, too, and is pushing the Apple Mac Mini to the very edge of budget-desktop pricing with its 2018 relaunch (models start at $799), but it just barely qualifies.
Read on to see what to look for in these systems, and what kind of components you can find inside. If you’re interested specifically in tiny PCs but budget is less of a factor, also check out our picks for favorite micro-desktops overall. There’s plenty of crossover between the two, but not every tiny PC is inexpensive.
First, Consider the Form Factor
What’s immediately obvious about most of these budget PCs? How they look. Modern components have made the PC-performance baseline very solid, even on a $500 tower, versus what it used to be. This allows traditional tower PCs to thrive in this price range. These remain some of our favorites for the money, as time-tested solutions to home computing.
You’ll also see an assortment of (impressively) small boxes, bare boards, microtowers, and even some stick-shaped PCs to choose among, too. The smallest of these systems measure just a couple of inches tall and only a few more across, while several of our top picks are mini boxes just a few inches tall and wide—and it’s hard not to admire these running full Windows 10. With their small size and dialed-down power, they save you not just money, but space, which can be crucial in certain usage situations. If you want to just plug one in out of sight behind a monitor or HDTV, you’ll hardly know it’s there.
Despite the compact sizes, our favorite small models still offer a respectable number of ports. The best of these boxes offer plenty of physical connectivity and expansion options, which make them versatile depending on the deployment. If you need to connect displays and peripherals, or add storage, there’s an option here for you. The larger towers, of course, provide a fairly full complement of ports, including some more modern options like USB Type-C.
Component Check: What’s Inside?
It should come as no shock that you’ll find lower-power processors in these less-expensive desktops, but you may be surprised just how capable they are for the size and price. But you’ll need to select carefully.
CPU advancements mean that the floor is higher than it used to be. All of them will have at least dual-core CPUs (some have quad-core chips), and most take just a few seconds to boot up. A handful of these models (usually, mini-towers) include a bonafide Intel Core i5 desktop-strength processor, in some cases even a legitimately quick six-core six-thread chip. Note: The mini PCs may use mobile-grade processors instead of desktop ones, however. Look at the name of the CPU when shopping; any Intel CPU ending in “U” in a small desktop is a laptop-equivalent processor.
For either type, though, web browsing, streaming video, displaying data, and working in simple documents is a snap. They’re hardly workstations (you’ll still want a more powerful and more expensive chip if you’re planning on editing media or holding web conferences for business with multiple participants), so it’s important to tailor your expectations to the specs. At the very least, have an idea of the most strenuous tasks you’ll throw at this machine to determine if a budget desktop can fit the bill. Demand a true desktop chip if much multitasking is on the agenda.
Moving on to memory, which will help move those tasks along smoothly, really cheap stick-type or ultracompact desktops in the $100 to $200 range will come with 2GB, only enough for signage situations or extremely low-demand, single applications such as word processors. An increasing number come with a basic 4GB, though, especially in the $200-plus range. Up at $400 and above, 8GB is common, and some units even manage to include 12GB in under-$700 configurations.
Storage is an area you may have to set some firm expectations around, as capacities are seldom very high; these types of desktops are not meant to store huge amounts of files. In the cheapest, smallest desktops, you’ll get as little as 32GB or 64GB of what’s called eMMC flash storage, similar to what’s offered in most Chromebooks. (It’s roughly the equivalent of an internal flash drive or SD card.) Pay a bit more, though, and you can net 64GB or 128GB; give preference to models that call out their storage as solid-state drives (SSDs) versus eMMC. Some of the full-size towers on our list include 256GB or even 512GB SSDs, at which point you’re hardly compromising any more. We strongly favor SSDs over hard drives, even in this price range.
Look for higher-capacity storage if you’re a serial downloader, but as evidenced by Chromebooks, internet-connected devices can get away with a lot less local storage thanks to the cloud. Flash storage and SSD will be norm in the really small budget desktops, as these models are too tight inside for conventional 3.5-inch hard drives, but some can take 2.5-inch drive upgrades. If you ever need more storage space, USB 3.0 and USB-C ports will also let you attach a speedy external hard drive or SSD.
Mini-towers and the usual towers, though, can often take a hard drive or two in an empty internal 3.5-inch drive bay if you need bulk storage on the cheap. We’ve even seen isolated mini-tower models preconfigured with a small SSD as the boot drive, plus a mass-storage hard drive. This is the best of both worlds in a budget config, but you’ll have to shop around to find one. (Usually you just get one or the other.)
Budget machines, whether big or small, almost exclusively come with the integrated graphics built into the CPU, not a discrete Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon graphics card. The latter are what’s needed for real gaming experiences or 3D applications, which are several tiers above what these PCs offer. At best, integrated graphics can run some less-demanding games at low detail settings and resolutions, or very visually simple and 2D games, smoothly. It goes without saying that an enthusiast gamer should look elsewhere (check out our favorite cheap gaming laptops and gaming desktops), but you could still get away with some light gaming on these. Gaming models with dedicated graphics cards start at several hundred dollars higher than the $500 range, but are starting to creep in around budget pricing; one of our favorites is the CyberPower Gamer Xtreme GXi11400CPG.
Internal Upgrades: Budget Towers Have You Covered
If you’re remotely interested in upgrading your desktop down the line, traditional tower desktops will do the job, even at this price point. The niche small-form-factor desktops are less friendly to maintenance, but your go-to standard tower will welcome additions easily. In a traditional case, you should expect to be able to remove the side panel and add more storage (like, as mentioned, an additional drive or two) and more memory.
Towers can also give you the option to add a discrete graphics card, but be careful of other factors. For example, limitations might be posed by the chassis size or the wattage of the internal power supply. (Some budget tower models without video cards have power supplies with less than 200-watt ratings.) You may be able to open up a case, and it may have the slot space for a video card, but the power supply might not have the wattage oomph to push it, or the chassis might be low-hanging and allow for the installation only of half-height cards, which would severely limit your upgrade options. Your most likely upgrade options for these systems will come on the form of additional storage or memory.
Down the size scale, small and inexpensive models don’t always rule out upgrades, especially for the more customizable offerings like the Intel NUC series. If you’re someone who will tinker, or who works in a professional setting deploying PCs for business use, with the NUCs and systems like them, you can add RAM or swap in a roomier drive to suit your needs. Consult your options at the time of purchase. As a general rule, though, the smaller the chassis, the fewer your upgrade options.
That said, keep your expectations in check. An eMMC boot drive won’t itself be upgradable (it’s made up of soldered-down chips), but in some unusual cases you might be able to add a secondary SSD or hard drive alongside the eMMC drive as extra storage. The computing sticks from Intel and its kind are resolutely not upgradable. Also, in many compact, cheap desktops, the CPU and RAM are not socketed and removable, but part of the mainboard.
…and Then There’s Pi
Beyond budget Windows desktops, of course, is the ultimate cheap DIY machine: the incredibly inexpensive Raspberry Pi.
The Pi, in its various iterations, is no more than a canvas of a bare circuit board. (See our review of the latest, the capable Raspberry Pi 4.) But this series of flexible “hobby board” systems allows you to create whatever lightweight computer you need and are capable of assembling from simple beginnings.
The Pi computers themselves are quite inexpensive, most under $50. Configuring and using the Pi will take some experimenter’s spirit, a few added dongles, and a willingness to work with a form of Linux. You’ll need to factor in the cost of some storage (a microSD card), a case for the PCB (usually a trivial expense), and cables, for starters.
Don’t think of the Raspberry Pi, in most cases, as a replacement for a full-on working or productivity system. It doesn’t have a level of power or user-friendliness for general-usage situations like that. However, for certain use cases, it’s just what you need: for powering a robot, running a weather station, serving as a media server, acting as a light web server. Its usefulness is limited only by your patience to learn the Linux-based lingo surrounding the various OSs, and your willingness to tweak. (See our guide to getting started with Raspberry Pi.)
Mind Those Few Extras…
One big caveat to your cheap desktop dreams, whether Windows-based, a Pi, or something else: You’ll still need a monitor. To be fair, this is no different than buying a standard screenless tower PC, unless you were to buy an all-inclusive all-in-one desktop. In this instance, though, the added cost hurts extra given you’re trying to be thrifty. Still, if you need to invest in a panel, don’t fret. You can find good, serviceable 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) displays starting just under $100. That’s for a nice, roomy 23-incher.
Ideally, you may even have a monitor from a past system, and key peripherals such as a keyboard and mouse to go with it. (We have you covered if you want to shop for a keyboard or mouse, too, by the way.) Even better, some of the full towers include a basic keyboard and simple mouse with your purchase.
Using a TV as a monitor is also an option for a system with an HDMI-out port, if you’re in a situation where you can display your PC onto a TV that’s already set up. This is especially useful for ultracompact and stick PCs, as they can plug right in to an HDMI port on the TV and need no major cable runs for setup in a living room, lobby, or anywhere else a PC may look unsightly. Indeed, small PCs like these make excellent PCs for powering a home theater for streaming, file playback from a network drive, and the like.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
If you’re replacing an older system that has become a bit too slow or worn out, or are setting up a new space and need something simple, a budget desktop may be in your future. Check out our recommendations list below for some of our favorites. If you’d like a more traditional tower and can swing the extra money, check out our overall top desktop picks or alternately, our favorite cheap laptops.
Pros: Great value. Best current performance for the category. Slick design with a small footprint. Optical drive, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth included. USB-C port.
Cons: Integrated graphics make gaming and 3D apps nonstarters. Somewhat cramped interior.
Bottom Line: The Acer Aspire TC-885-UA92 is our top pick among budget desktops for its excellent value, delivering speedy performance and a solid feature set at a very reasonable price.
Pros: Deep connectivity for its size, including four Thunderbolt 3 ports. Memory is SO-DIMM, not soldered. Configurable up to six cores/12 threads. New storage (2TB) and RAM (64GB) ceilings. Top-notch pre-installed software.
Cons: RAM not technically a user upgrade. No option for a 2.5-inch hard drive as internal mass storage. Scanty SSD on base model.
Bottom Line: Apple’s iconic Mac mini compact desktop delivers more core-processing, storage, and memory potential than ever, in a polished box brimming with cutting-edge connectivity.
Pros: Most powerful Raspberry Pi to date. Offered in three RAM amounts. Supports two 4K external displays. Gigabit Ethernet jack onboard. USB 3.0 support.
Cons: When taxed without an active cooling source, struggles with overheating.
Bottom Line: With configurable memory amounts, gigabit Ethernet, and dual-display output, the Raspberry Pi 4 is an excellent tiny desktop computer for tinkerers and programming enthusiasts.
Pros: Compact, VESA-mountable body. Fanless design (as tested with Core i5) allows for silent running. Easy to upgrade or build as a barebones unit. Includes an IR remote.
Cons: Fanless design not ideal in all conditions, as it can run hot. Some competitors with active cooling have better performance.
Bottom Line: A silent operator in our review config, Azulle’s Inspire Mini PC is a niche desktop for maximizing space and minimizing noise. Its everyday performance is reasonable, but heavy CPU loads make its fanless design heat up quickly.
Pros: Sleek chassis. Solid productivity performance from six-core Intel Core i5 CPU. Optical drive. Gigabit Ethernet port. Wi-Fi. Eight USB Type-A ports.
Cons: No discrete graphics card. Lackluster gaming performance. Limited interior room for expansion. Only one USB Type-C port. No Thunderbolt 3 port.
Bottom Line: The HP Envy Desktop is a proficient everyday PC, offering excellent productivity performance in an attractive chassis with room for expansion.
Pros: Core i7 and Iris Plus graphics offer hefty computing power for such a small PC. Thunderbolt 3 support. Easy access for upgrades. Can hold two drives (one M.2, one 2.5-inch).
Cons: Cost of storage, memory, and (possibly) OS needs to be factored into overall cost.
Bottom Line: Intel’s latest bare-bones NUC Kit offers surprisingly robust loadout options in a tiny chassis, though it’s a pricey prospect once you factor in the cost of components and an OS.
Pros: Tons of at-purchase configuration options. Includes security features for businesses. Chassis is compact, rugged, and easily serviced. Plenty of ports. Runs quietly.
Cons: Minimal room for internal expansion, beyond 2.5-inch bay. Bundled keyboard and mouse are wired and subpar.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s ThinkCentre M720q Tiny is a well-rounded, capable SFF PC suitable for cramped offices or other space-constrained work environs. Just nail the configuration you need up front-upgradability is limited.
Pros: Sleek chassis. Good build quality. Plenty of USB Type-A ports. Optical drive.
Cons: Lackluster computing performance. Skimpy 180-watt power supply.
Bottom Line: It’s not a particularly good value, but the HP Pavilion Desktop PC is well-built, with an attractive chassis, plenty of USB ports, and a speedy SSD instead of a hard drive.
Pros: Low price. Compact build. Optical drive, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth included. AMD Ryzen G-series APU delivers slight uptick in graphics capability.
Cons: Poky productivity performance even versus other budget systems. Interior access is a bit more complicated than necessary. No USB-C ports.
Bottom Line: Lenovo’s IdeaCentre 510A is an unassuming budget desktop in every sense. It’ll perform basic tasks without hurting your wallet, but some alternatives do it better at this price point.
Pros: Unbelievably compact chassis. Rugged, too. Competent performance. Plenty of ports.
Cons: Noisy during operation. Virtually no room for internal expansion.
Bottom Line: The Lenovo ThinkCentre M90n Nano makes other small-form-factor PCs look enormous, but most offices would do better with a slightly larger and quieter system, leaving the Nano to serve as a streaming box or other specialized device.