Budget Gaming PCs
Cryptocurrency mining has sent graphics card prices spiralling, but fortunately you can still pick up a PC that’s capable of Full HD gaming for just £600, as these eight models prove
Graphics card prices are through the roof, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a bundle for quality Full HD gaming. We’ve tested eight complete PCs, each costing £600 or less, to see what kind of power you can get on a budget
Quad-core chips, which have better multitasking prowess than dual-core processors, are now common
WHEN AN INFLUX of interest in cryptocurrency mining forced up graphics card prices in 2017, we hoped it would just be a temporary spike. Instead, it’s become a sprawling plateau of unaffordability – months have passed and most GPUs are still well above their pre-mining boom prices, if you can even find them in stock.
Inevitably, this has had a knock-on effect on pre-built gaming PCs, with the price of some systems jumping by triple digits in the space of a few weeks. There’s rarely been a worse time – well, a more expensive time – to invest in a system that can run games as well as it can browsers and office software.
All is not lost, however. Lower-end cards haven’t been affected as badly by the price increases (owing to them not being able to mine as effectively as mid-range and premium cards, and thus not being in as high demand), and from experience we know these GPUs can be more than adequate for playing at 1,920x1,080 with at least medium quality settings. What’s more, AMD has recently launched its Raven Ridge APUs with Radeon Vega graphics, which supposedly far exceed what we’ve come to expect from the integrated graphics in consumer Intel chips.
In other words, there’s hope yet for those who want a reasonably powerful gaming PC without bankrupting themselves. For more proof, look no further than the eight desktop systems we’ve reviewed in the pages to come: all of them have been built with graphical power in mind, and not one costs more than £600, including Windows.
Before we look at which of these are the best, consider exactly what you should be looking for from a cheap PC. Here, we’re putting somewhat more of an emphasis on gaming horsepower than we usually do for PC reviews; the idea is to see how high a standard of graphics performance you can get for your (relatively small amount of) money.
That said, we’re sticking to our trusty benchmark duo of Dirt Showdown and Metro: Last Light Redux, which will show how well each system copes with both a fast-paced but technically undemanding game and a more intensive title that really pushes the GPU. Consistently high frame rates at 2,560x1,440 resolution is asking a bit much at this price, so we’ve focused on 1080p credentials.
For both games, the standards to meet are a minimum of 30fps and, ideally, 60fps. It might be that some settings need to be reduced to meet the latter, which is fine, but the fewer sacrifices you have to make, the better.
We’re also using the SteamVR Performance Test benchmark, which runs a snippet of Valve’s Aperture Robot Repair demo to determine how well a system handles virtual reality. Again, don’t expect amazing things, but even some mediocre VR capability would be a good showing for these PCs.
CENTRE OF ATTENTION
Of course, you shouldn’t forget about CPU performance. You won’t be gaming 100% of the time, and having a fancy graphics card won’t stop most other Windows applications running poorly if the other hardware isn’t up to snuff.
At this budget, you’re looking mainly at entry-level chips, but happily, this particular section of the market has seen some big improvements in the past year, so quad-core chips, which have better multitasking prowess than dual-core processors, are even more common than dual-cores. As always, we’ve run our 4K benchmarks to test image editing, video editing/encoding and multitasking.
In addition, while the CPU won’t be the driving force behind gaming performance (unless it’s one of AMD’s APUs), it’s still a determining factor: it has to process all the GPU’s rendering and physics simulation work, after all. A CPU that can’t keep up will ‘bottleneck’ the GPU, preventing you from getting the performance your graphics hardware is capable of. It’s therefore worth ensuring a good balance between these two key components.
As for RAM, there’s not much to say. You’re going to want 8GB to avoid slowdown while keeping costs low, and that’s exactly what all these PCs will give, without exception. That said, it’s nice to see DDR4 become the new standard for budget rigs. Just three years ago this was mainly limited to enthusiast PCs, with the cheaper but slower DDR3 more widespread. Now, DDR4 is bringing its higher throughput to more affordable systems.
DISK AND REWARD
Storage shouldn’t be a deal-breaker around the £600 mark: basic setups, often consisting of a single hard disk, aren’t exactly below par. However, some PCs might go above and beyond, either by including a hybrid SSHD
drive – essentially a mechanical hard disk with a small solid-state cache, which speeds up access to a handful of favourite apps – or even a small SSD, backed up with a larger hard disk to ensure workable capacity.
Obviously, this last option is best, even if CPU and graphical performance take higher priority. An SSD will mean Windows boots up faster, and applications (including games) take less time to load, so you can spend less time waiting and more time enjoying your PC. SSHDs can deliver a similar effect, though not as reliably.
The main thing is to make sure you choose a PC with sufficient capacity, as modern games can take up huge amounts of storage space. Don’t settle for less than 1TB.
Admittedly, if you’re looking to buy a pre-built PC, you might not be particularly interested in opening the side panel and tinkering with the parts yourself. However, that leaves a world of untapped potential for making the system even better in the future. If, for
example, you ever decide that the hard disk is slowing you down, you could take advantage of the case’s empty drive bays (or the M.2 slot on certain motherboards) to add a faster SSD. Or you could simply slide a sound card or Wi-Fi card into an empty PCI-E slot, adding brand new capabilities without needing to buy a whole new PC or even take yours to a professional technician.
With that in mind, we’ll also be judging how easy each PC is to upgrade and customise, even if – for the first few months of ownership – it might just be hypothetical. Admittedly, even this might involve some price-induced expectation management, as we’re more likely to see small and thus less well-equipped microATX motherboards, as well as both mini-and mid-tower cases, but these should still offer more than a few ways to enhance your setup.
WHAT, WHERE AND WIRED
Since asking for things such as hi-fi-quality audio outputs and 802.11ac Wi-Fi would be slightly overambitious anywhere under £1,000
or so, when it comes to connectivity you should be looking for a PC that makes the most of the basics. That means using faster USB3 and USB3.1 ports instead of just USB2, a decent front I/O panel for easier access, and up-to-date display connections such as HDMI and DisplayPort, not just VGA and DVI.
Not that you can’t get some nice surprises; some PCs include a pre-installed 802.11n Wi-Fi card, which can be very useful even if it isn’t the fastest, while others might offer something like an SD card slot. These are nice little extras if you can get them, not least because they might be saving you having to pay for and install an upgrade in the future.
VR gaming poses a slight issue: headsets such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift connect via an HDMI port, which most of these PCs have only one of. If you want to get into VR but only have an HDMI cable to connect the PC to your monitor, you’ll need to find or buy a DisplayPort or DVI-D cable and switch. It’s hardly a complicated workaround, but there’s no harm in double-checking if your monitor came with any more non-HDMI cables.