Bud­get Gam­ing PCs

Computer Shopper - - CONTENTS -

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.

CARD CORE

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.

HOME MAKEOVER

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.

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