In a world where a decent graphics card can cost as much as a new state-of-the-art console, you might think that $ 500 just isn't enough money to buy a PC and play on it. But, given that modern hardware is very capable, surely with some careful decisions it must be possible to build something that can run some of the newest titles and old favorites?
With our thinking hats on, we went through our reviews and online stores to see if this was possible. Can you really build a PC for gaming at the same price as a new PlayStation or Xbox?
Pre-builds – just no
Let's start by removing one option entirely: pre-builds. These are computers that have already been assembled and are being sold en masse by companies such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo, as well as smaller independent companies (e.g. Digital Storm).
Yes, you can get a PC from them for well under $ 500, but for gaming, you shouldn't be. The CPU will almost certainly only be a dual-core offering, with only 4 GB of RAM as slow as possible. The hard drive won't be anything special, and game performance will range from almost okay to absolutely bleak.
Don't think that getting a more reasonable base unit like the Lenovo IdeaCentre 5i for $ 449.99 is also better – yes, there is more RAM and the CPU is much better, so games definitely run better too. But all you have left is $ 50 to drown your worries and you will run out of money long before you even managed to erase the memory of your bad decision.
Why? Well, no pre-build under $ 500 comes with a monitor, and while this isn't a must have for an ultra-cheap gaming PC (consoles certainly don't come with a TV), we try to put together a full package Here. What we think is a pretty good pre-built gaming PC looks like the HP Omen 30L, which is mostly off the shelf with the exception of the motherboard, but that will get you at least $ 900.
But what about laptops – they are equipped with a screen. So are there any laptops in our budget that are worth considering? The simple answer is no. All $ 500 laptops have the same graphics performance issue as a cheap pre-built desktop, but they are even slower and have far less storage space. For example, the Dell Inspiron 15 3000 laptop is perfectly fine for general use, but it would be a disappointing experience if you tried to play games on it.
The real reason for the disappointment is simple: you can get individual components that are faster or more powerful than those found in cheap stems and laptops, and still stay on budget.
DIY is the way to go
One reason cheap pre-builds aren't great value for money (when it comes to budget gaming) is because you pay to have someone put it all together and install the software, as well as the full build warranty . Why bother – do it yourself!
There is no better feeling than carefully clicking everything together (it really isn't that hard at all), pressing the power button and watching your new creation come to life. All new parts you buy are guaranteed either from the dealer or directly from the manufacturer.
So let's take a look at what parts you can get separately and still be on budget. The first and most important element of the PC will be the choice of CPU. Ideally, it has at least 4 cores and supports multithreading when possible.
Full graphics cards, even cheap ones, cost part of your $ 500, so the main processor must have an integrated graphics chip. These are always very basic, but there are two CPUs that are a viable option: AMD's Ryzen 3 3200G or Ryzen 3 3400G. The former costs $ 99.99, has 4 cores (but unfortunately no multithreading) and a clock range of 3.6 to 4.0 GHz. The bigger brother costs 50 US dollars more, has the same number of cores, but processes up to 8 threads simultaneously and is clocked a little higher (3.7 GHz to 4.2).
Another key difference is the graphics chip it contains: Both CPUs have systems based on AMD's Vega GPUs. This design is a few years old now, but is still reasonably capable and much better than the built-in GPU in CPUs that are typically found in inexpensive pre-builds and laptops. The technical specifications for Ryzen's Vega chips are as follows:
|feature||3200G||3400G||3400G vs 3200G|
|Shader cores||512||704||37.5% more|
|Clock speed range||300 to 1250 MHz||300 to 1400 MHz||12% higher at max|
|Maximum pixel rate||10.0 Gpixel / s||11.2 Gpixel / s||12% better|
|Maximum texture rate||40.0 Gtexel / s||61.6 Gpixel / s||54% better|
|Maximum FP32 shader rate||1.28 TFLOPS||1.97 Gpixel / s||54% better|
When it comes to graphics, you want all of the above numbers to be as big as possible. The 3400G clearly contains the better GPU, but the entire processor costs 50% more. When we tested it last year, gaming performance at 1080p was only acceptable when using low detail settings in games.
This is less of a problem for competitive shooters and esports enthusiasts and many players choose such settings to maximize their effectiveness. But you are hoping for the most modern photorealism with a ray trail, then you are out of luck!
Unfortunately we're on a very tight budget and in order to save as much money as possible we'll be choosing the Ryzen 3 3200G as our CPU – it comes with a decent heat sink and fan so don't have to pay for it, but it does get slower in games (between 12% and 54% less) than the 3400G.
Next is the system RAM. Ryzen processors work best when paired with two DIMMs of DDR4 memory to run in two-channel mode. We picked a 2 x 8 GB kit from Patriot at 3000 MT / s for just under $ 38 on Amazon. We could have gone for a 2 x 4 GB setup to save a bit more money, but it wasn't worth the difference and 16 GB will be fine for years to come.
The CPU and RAM require a motherboard and we went for the Asrock B450M-HDV, which is currently priced at $ 71.99 on Amazon. It's not the best for overclocking, but it has a lot of features and a decent BIOS menu. It has a PCI Express x16 slot for a separate graphics card, integrated audio and numerous sockets for storage drives and USB devices.
There are older models that are even cheaper, like the Biostar A320MH ($ 55.99 at Newegg), but our preferred option supports faster RAM and offers an M.2 slot for an NVMe SSD. The latter is a little too expensive for our budget at the moment, but they keep falling in price.
Speaking of storage, we choose a Kingston 240 GB A400 SSD for the operating system and applications and a Seagate 1 TB Barracuda hard drive for games – the first costs less than $ 28 on Amazon, the second just under $ 50. Both use the SATA interface to connect to the motherboard, but their performance will more than keep up with the rest of the system. Most budget pre-builds only offer a single hard drive for everything, while our setup ensures the PC boots up quickly and has plenty of room for games.
A good alternative to the above could be to opt for a single larger SSD and keep the very affordable Kingston A400 SSD. The 1TB model is priced at $ 89.00, making it the only storage drive on your system for almost the same price. Or, if you really want to go with an NVMe SSD, Western Digital's 256GB SN750 is $ 36.95 on Amazon.
All of these components require a case, a power supply to operate, and a keyboard and mouse to operate. There is a tremendous range of makes and models to choose from, and things can get very subjective when it comes to choosing.
In order to keep to the budget, we opted for the DeepCool Matrexx 30 housing, a Thermaltake Smart 430 W power supply and the G20 and M70 gaming keyboard and mouse from NPET. The total price for all four items on Amazon is $ 108.96.
Yes, there are cheaper options out there, but these are all well made for the price and look great too, though that depends on your thoughts on RGB lighting! It is always worth spending a little extra on the power adapter, as a good one will help keep the system stable while gaming, and even if the total power is only between 400 and 500W, it will be enough for future graphics card- Upgrade.
Making the tough choices
So far we've spent $ 396.33 of our budget, leaving $ 103.67 on two more items: an operating system and a monitor. Since we absolutely need the former to use our budget computer, let's first look at our options for it.
The default choice for most users is Windows 10 Home as it supports a huge range of modern and old games. The only problem is that the full version on Amazon costs $ 130 and we obviously don't have enough money for it.
There are many websites that offer product keys for Windows 10 – you won't get a copy of the software, just a single license to use it. For example, Kinguin charges $ 37.83 for a single key, but why is it so much cheaper? Is it illegal
The answer is "probably not" as many companies buy excess product keys and then sell them. People like Kinguin buy a batch of them and resell them individually. Sometimes a quick call to Microsoft's support department is required to activate the key. Once that's done, you're good to go. Unfortunately, other websites may be trying to sell you keys that are no longer valid (intentionally or negligently). There is no easy, foolproof way of telling a story, and that's the risk you have to take.
Of course, you don't have to use Windows – Linux-based operating systems are free, and many support a large library of games. Ubuntu is very popular, easy to set up, and well supported. Another alternative to consider is Valve's SteamOS. Unlike Ubuntu, however, it's not that simple to install and the only focus is on playing games through Steam. It's free, of course, and that alone makes it worth considering.
We're sticking to Windows 10 to build our budget and playing in the $ 30 region with a low price. All of this leaves us a few quarters over $ 73 for a monitor.
Unfortunately, that's not a lot of money, even for a cheap screen. We found something that fits our budget with the Acer K202HQL ($ 69.99), but a skimpy 19-inch TFT-TN panel with a resolution of 1600 x 900 is just too bad to consider to pull. Alternatively, one of the cheapest and most popular monitors on Amazon is the Acer SB220Q, which we tested extensively last February. It exceeds the budget by $ 20 but gives you a decent 1080p display on a 21.5-inch panel. Honestly, it's not great for gaming, but it is serviceable.
But what if you don't care about a monitor? What if you wanted to plug the computer into a TV or had a replacement lying around? The Asrock motherboard has an HDMI out port, so plugging everything in shouldn't be a problem. All you need is a long cable and we still have a lot of budget for one of these.
Skipping the monitor off the build could spend the remaining dollars on a graphics card that is the best upgrade for a gaming build. For example, the PNY GeForce GT 1030 is only $ 75.99, but it's not really worth it. You'd better buy the Ryzen 3 3400G, get a better cooler, and give the processor a smooth overclock. And the leftover money will bring you delicious snacks that you can have while setting up the system!
If you're going for a discrete GPU, then at least go for the good ol 'Radeon RX 560, which unfortunately costs $ 110. New low-end hardware is unusually expensive right now compared to what we saw a year ago when we narrowed our options.
Used, not abused
We purposely didn't consider second-hand parts for our $ 500 build for one simple reason: the cost of many items, even those 4 or 5 years old, is still surprisingly high. AMD's Ryzen 3 2400G is not that different from the 3400G, although it is an older model. However, the prices on eBay are not much lower than the newer chip.
The selection of models from 2010 to 2015 gives more promising results. For example, a Core i5-4690 can be bought for around $ 80, and there will be plenty of cheap LGA1150 motherboards and DDR3 memory available too. While such a processor is no faster than a Ryzen 3 3400G, the extra money could be used for a decent graphics card.
Brand new Radeon RX 560 cards can be bought on Amazon for $ 110 and up, the slightly faster GeForce GTX 1050 Ti is typically under $ 160, and the even better RX 570 also costs around $ 150 – they are OK at 1080p. with low to medium settings, but their prices mean you'd need a used CPU, motherboard, and RAM for a total of $ 160 to $ 200.
That seems like a decent amount of money to work with, but the parts likely don't come with a warranty, and there's absolutely no guarantee they haven't been misused in the hands of their previous owners.
One area that can be considered is the monitor. Thanks to the drop in prices for 1440p models in recent years, there is a plethora of used 1080p models like eBay. Many of them are 22 "to 24" tall.
Sticking to a Ryzen 3 3200G / 3400G build gives you a base platform that is perfectly expandable as funds become available. The motherboard supports a variety of faster processors, the case offers space for an adequate graphics card and the RAM will be more than sufficient in the coming years.
To comfort or not to comfort
So can we really build a new $ 500 gaming PC – including a monitor, keyboard, operating system, etc.? The answer is yes, but there are obvious limitations: namely, the graphics performance of the Ryzen 3 3200G and how much you're willing to endure with a monitor under $ 100.
All in all, this selection means you're playing at 1080p and mostly with low detail settings (you may be able to make changes on some titles to improve the graphics). Will this be better than playing the latest games on a big screen 1080p or higher and amazing graphics with a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X?
As much as it hurts us to say it, it definitely doesn't. If that's what you're looking for, the decision is easy: the newer consoles are the superior and sensible option. After all, they have far more powerful CPUs and graphics chips as well as ultra-fast RAM and memory.
Aside from the raw performance of these consoles, a cheap gaming PC is also great for everyday productivity and working on school projects. Not only are many games better suited to computers, but they are only available on that platform.
Titles like Crusader Kings II, Disco Elysium and Into the Breach will give you tons of hours of fun – check out our selection of 25 games that will work flawlessly on a budget PC. Great games aren't always about frame rates, graphics, and high resolution: it's about the fun you can have, and a cheap little PC you built gives you a lot of it. Not to mention, there are plenty of free games out there that you can play on PC too.
So if you don't mind looking at basic graphics, $ 500 is actually what you get for a gaming PC. It won't be quick, use fancy water cooling, or have the latest graphics technology, but it will be fun to build and it will be yours!
- AMD Ryzen 3 3200G at Amazon, Newegg
- AMD Ryzen 3 3400G at Amazon, Newegg
- Patriot Viper 4 3000 MHz 2 x 8 GB DDR4 at Amazon, Newegg
- Asrock B450M-HDV on Amazon, Newegg
- Kingston 240 GB A400 at Amazon, Newegg
- Seagate 1 TB Barracuda HDD at Amazon, Newegg
- DeepCool Matrexx 30 at Amazon, Newegg
- Thermaltake Smart 430 W power supply at Amazon, Newegg
- NPET G20 Compact Gaming Keyboard at Amazon, Newegg
- NPET G70 Wired Gaming Mouse at Amazon, Newegg
- Acer SB220Q 21.5 "monitor at Amazon
- LG 24M47VQ 24 inch LED on Amazon
- Radeon RX 560 at Amazon, Newegg
- GeForce GTX 1050 Ti at Amazon, Newegg
Masthead Credit: Gabriele Maltinti