Can you get a decent computer system for £200?

Mark Pickavance puts his bargain hunting hat on...

I’ve been sent some amazingly expensive equipment to review over the years. Some things I’ve greeted with a quiet envy that I don’t own something that brilliantly conceived and constructed, while some things have left me wondering who in their right mind would buy it.

For exactly that reason, I wouldn’t blow a huge budget buying a PC, because the turnover of parts and technology will relegate it to the status of also-ran in the blink of an eye. It’s a hard truth that the majority of branded PCs currently leaving the factory are already obsolete, in the strictest application of the word. The pace of change is unlikely to slow down anytime soon, though, which leaves us all wondering what the best plan is.

Well you could be tempted by those brands that go on about ‘future proofing’ which, in their context, means spending excessively on their most advanced products. Or, you could work on the basis that a PC is concurrent for about 3-4 years, and on those timescales you’ll buy something new and cheap to replace the cheap and cheerful system you previously purchased. That might not seem especially friendly to the environment, but it will be lighter on your pocket.
That begs the question exactly how inexpensive can a system be? Well, if you’ve pulled it out of a skip, very inexpensive, but for the sake of this article I’m going to talk about buying systems.

I’ve given myself a budget of £200 to see what I can achieve, and I’ve decided to look at a range of computers that you might use to do typical office chores. If a system costing £200 lasts four years then the cost of ownership, excluding power consumption, of just £50 per annum seems a remarkably good deal.

What’s important to understand about many of the systems I’m talking about is that, by definition, they’re not the very latest hardware. That doesn’t preclude them from being useful pieces of equipment that will run the latest version of Windows, though, or that they’re incapable of performing many of the tasks that you need a system to perform.
First up let’s look at some cut-price desktop systems, where I found some surprisingly pokey gear inside my £200 budget.

Desktop choices

Given all the parts you need other than the computer to actually work, I’m going to take the general assumption that you will have a monitor, and possibly a mouse and keyboard too. So given that we’re just talking about a base unit, what exactly can you buy with £200 burning a hole in your pocket?

Zoostorm Desktop PC (£199.99 from Ebuyer)
This system is based on an Intel H61 chipset and offers the Intel Pentium DC G645 2.9GHz that, as the ‘DC’ suggests, is a dual core CPU. Amazingly for this price this system also comes with 8GB of RAM, a DVD Writer and a 500GB hard drive.

The processor uses socket 1155 (also called H2), so you can replace it with something more impressive when your budget allows. This is an original Sandy Bridge chipset, but in theory accepts new Ivy Bridge processors. It also has a PCI Express x16 slot, so you could put a discrete video card in here too. The only caveat to that plan is that the mATX Tower case only comes with a 300 watt PSU, so there are limits to how much expansion the system can reasonably handle.

On the plus side it has a PS/2 keyboard port, lots of USB 2.0 (no USB 3.0), Gigabit LAN, six channel audio, and both VGA and DVI video output. It also comes with a 1 year collect and return warranty, and incredibly the price is inclusive of warranty.

What you do need to add, other than the obvious peripheral items is an operating system, because the Zoostorm is shipped devoid of one. Those wanting to stick to the £200 budget could use a wide range of Linux distros, or you could buy an upgrade version of Windows for another £40, or a full OEM license for £69.99.

Primo 6000i (£195 from Overclockers UK)
The Primo is a low cost PC that Overclockers will configure however you’d like it, but the basic system comes for under £200. So what do you actually get for that price?

This is another Intel H61 system, like the Zoostorm, except in his model they’ve used the Intel Pentium G620 2.60GHz CPU, which is slightly slower than the G645. They also only provide 4GB of RAM, though upgrading to 8GB costs you only £12.50.

Included in the base model is a 500GB hard drive, a 24x DVD+RW SATA writer, and eight-channel audio.
There is probably slightly more legroom for expansion in the Primo as, while it is a microATX Case and motherboard, it has a 500W PSU to handle a much more powerful graphics option. The video you get as standard is the Intel GMA X4500 that’s part of the CPU, which is fine for 2D work and video playback, but hardly sufficient for fluid high resolution 3D gaming.

There is no OS installed as standard, but Windows 7 can be added for £49.99, and they’re offering a Windows 8 upgrade to that for just £14.99 until January 31st.

HP Compaq DC7900 SFF Desktop PC (£167.99 Inc VAT from Misco)
It appears that HP entirely miscalculated how many business systems it would sell a couple of years back, and the DC7900 is still being shifted because of that. As sold at this price, this is a rather old design built on the Intel Q45 chipset that first came out in 2008. Basically, this is a four year old computer!

That said, the Core 2 Duo E8400 processor it comes with was a sterling performer, and you do also get 2GB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive in the small form factor box. But these aren’t really the big selling point, that’s the fact that you also get Windows 7 Professional on it.

This is old technology, but if speed isn’t critical this is a very competitive price for a fully working built for business system that comes with a 12 month warranty.

Dell Optiplex 745 MT (£179.99 from Microdream Ltd)
This won’t be a big surprise to learn that this system isn’t coming from Dell directly, who stopped selling this particular type of Optiplex some time ago. These systems are sold as ‘Refurbished’ by Microdream, and as such they come with no small amount of caveats.

My experience of buying refurbished hardware has swung wildly from items that looked entirely new to those that had definitely seen better days. It’s a gamble, but those that win can get good hardware for a song.

If you decide you are willing to take that chance, then in this example you get a Core 2 Duo E2160 1.8GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, an Nvidia GeForce GT 610 video card, and Windows 7 in the bundle.

For another £6.99 they’ll provide a mouse and keyboard, and a 12 month warranty for £29.99. If you don’t take that last option then it is only covered for 3 months, barely enough time to really test it properly.

This system is sold as ‘Gaming Ready’ which given the capabilities of the GeForce GT 610 I’d strongly suggest is an oversell, but I can’t deny that the combination of a workable solution and a Windows 7 license is an attractive one. This is just one of the many systems that Microdream are shipping currently, and they can even offer you a system with a monitor for less than £200 if you are happy with refurbished equipment, and the very limited warranty that it comes with.

Micro computers

Not everyone needs a complete desktop PC, even one that’s been shoehorned into a microATX enclosure. There are a breed of computer that are even smaller, and they can provide a very cheap option for someone who just wants something to surf the Internet or reply to emails. Here are some very competitively priced ones:

MSI DC100-010XEU Wind Box Mini PC (£199.99 from Scan)
The new AMD Brazos ‘E’ class processors have generated plenty of interest, as they can deliver a solid office computing experience extremely cheaply. One of the systems to use them is the MSI DC100-010XEU, a machine that seems to apply the ergonomic principles of the Tardis to get what it includes inside a remarkably small box measuring just 191.8 x 150.93 x 34.94 mm (WxHxD).
Wedged in here is the E450 dual core APU running at 1.65 GHz, 2GB of 1333MHz DDR3 RAM, a 320GB hard drive and AMD HD 6320 graphics. The OS is your problem to solve, and Scan will probably add delivery costs to this price once they’ve received the stock they’re currently awaiting. If you don’t mind buying things on pre-order, his looks like it could be a very nice system.

Lenovo Q180 Nettop PC (£179.99 from Ebuyer)
While others are embracing AMD technology, Lenovo is a firm fan of Intel. As such when designed the Q180 Nettop PC, it chose an Intel Atom, specifically the 1.86GHz D2550, to power it. That’s one of Intel’s new ‘Cedar Trail’ designs, which supports both Hyperthreading and Virtualization technology. However, what’s critical to this amazingly small computer design is the 10 watt TDP that scaling the chip to 32nm has allowed.

The Atom’s weakness is the integrated graphics, so Lenovo have spruced up this model with an inbuilt AMD Radeon HD7450 chip. It also has 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, but no optical disc and no OS at this price. The CPU is a bit of a slug, too, and even with AMD’s help it might struggle playing 1080p video smoothly, though it is fine for general office use.

What’s nice about this design is that it comes with a bracket that allows you to mount it on the rear of a monitor that has VESA, though you’ll obviously need a monitor and other peripherals to use it.

Acer Revo L80 Nettop PC (£149.99 from Ebuyer)
This is an odd looking computer, which looks a bit like the result of someone taking a power-file to a box they didn’t care for. That said, for a complete working system it is remarkably cheap. Acer managed this by using the Intel Celeron 887 1.5GHz as the workhorse of this system, but it’s a slow old nag. To try and balance that limitation it did put 4GB of RAM in here and a 500GB hard drive, though these don’t really make up for the Celeron. But even if the CPU isn’t rocket assisted, there is more than enough power in the L80 to do general office work and Internet related tasks.

Oddly, it does come with an OS, Free DOS, which I can’t see many customers keeping installed for long. To use this you will need a USB mouse and keyboard, a monitor that has HDMI or DVI inputs, and an external USB optical drive.

Zotac Z-Box SD-ID12 Intel Atom Mini PC (£95.99 from Overclockers UK)
When I first saw this product the price seemed like a typo, because this is a fully working computer that just needs an operating system and a few peripherals to be up and running.

The price is reflected in the older technology that the SD-ID12 has in it, using the NM10 chipset and the Intel Atom D525 CPU. That’s a dual core CPU and the chip includes the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150 GPU, but this isn’t anything that gamers would dream about. The GPU is only DX9 compliant, and the HDMI output can only generate 720p resolution.

It should also be noted that this system won’t work out of the box, because it has no installed RAM or hard drive. You’ll need to add a DDR3 SODIMM for memory and a 2.5” drive to get it operational, and unless you have those items to hand you might be better choosing an alternative design.

If you have the parts, a relatively low expectations then the SD-ID12 could be a outstandingly inexpensive option.

Barebone option

All barebone systems obscure their true cost to a degree. Once you’ve added all the things needed to make a working computer they never seemlike the bargain they first appeared to be. That said, if you pick wisely then you can use one as the basis for a very cheap PC.

Shuttle SA76R4 Barebone AMD AM3 (£122.76 from Scan)
By definition Barebone systems need extra items, so you shouldn’t see the price of this unit as being the total expenditure.

What you will need to get this system running is a CPU, some DDR3 RAM and a hard drive. A 160GB Seagate Pipeline can be had for £29, and 2GB of 1333Mhz DDR3 for a tenner, which leaves roughly £38 for the AM3 processor. When I initially researched this I thought that was unrealistic, but actually you can get an AM3 Sempron 145 for just £25.58, leaving enough for a cheap keyboard and mouse or an optical drive.

Those willing to throw in a couple of extra pounds could get a AMD Athlon II X2 250 3GHz in here, though that’s an OEM price so they might need to find a cooler. However, with that processor installed this could be a rather nice solution.

In terms of expansion you can use any AM3 processor that uses 95Watts or less, and you can also install a discrete PCIe video card, as long as you don’t exceed the 250 watt PSU power budget.

Asus V7-P8H67E (£129.98 from Overclockers UK)
Most people think about Asus in respect of their laptops, tablets and video cards, but they also make some very affordable barebone systems.

The Asus V7-P8H67E is fantastically specified, as it uses the very recent Intel H67 chipset, supporting the 2nd Generation Core i3, i5 and i7 processors. It also takes four sticks of DDR3 Memory (32GB Max) and can handle five SATA devices, including two of the SATA III spec type.

The caveat to this design is the working budget that is left to provide a CPU, RAM and storage, just £70.02 from our £200 cap. The cheapest CPU option is the Celeron G440 1.6GHz, which is difficult to find these days. But a Celeron G465 (1.9GHz) can be acquired for £28.84, and that’s low enough to fit 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. If you’ve any of these items spare you might want to punt for the Intel Celeron G555 2.70GHz (£42) or the Intel Pentium G860 3.0GHz (£50).

In terms of ultimate expansion possibilities this system could take the Core i7-3770T (£265), and whatever discrete video card you can operate with a 350 watt PSU.

Foxconn nT-A3500 Nettop Barebones (£169.99 from Overclockers UK)
This item could have been in the Nettop section too, because it’s one of those minimalist computers, but this one comes with no memory or hard drive.

The challenge for you therefore is to get a single DDR3 SODIMM and a hard drive for £30, which might just be possible depending what capacity you are willing to accept.

I didn’t mention a CPU, because you do get one of those, an AMD E350 dual-core 1.6GHz APU which isn’t upgradable. This has an inbuilt AMD Radeon HD 6310, which allows it to play video smoothly and play some modestly detailed games.

The hard drive you’ll need is a 2.5” laptop mechanism, and you’ll also need to source an operating system and some means of getting that on to the computer without an integrated optical drive.

Even with these limitations, and the challenge of getting memory and storage inside the budget, this is still a rather nice choice, and probably a better option than any of the Intel Atom-powered solutions.

Go green

While I was working on this article the subject of tablet computers came up, what with all the coverage of Microsoft’s Surface. Regrettably Surface and its bedfellows are going to cost substantially more than the £200 budget I’ve got here.

Yet, it is possible to buy a tablet for less than £200, and use it in a manner that’s more like a system. What you need is a tablet (obviously), a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and if you want to work in a more PC like way you might want to connect a PC monitor to your device using an MHL cable. That last item enables the USB port of your tablet to become a HDMI out port, and so will present whatever is on the tablet screen to a monitor display. Actually, you don’t need a tablet to do this, you can do it with a Smartphone too.

The catch to MHL is that only certain devices support it, and I was disappointed to discover that the Nexus 7 tablet is not one of them. The Kindle Fire HD has HDMI out, but no official access to the Google Play store - though it can be rooted to add that functionality.

So what other tablets can you use to make a £200 system with HDMI out? A quick check revealed the Yarvik GoTab Zetta (£162.74), Yarvik Zania 10” (169.99), Blackberry PlayBook 7” (£108.97), Sumvision Titan (£149.99), Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition 8.2” (£199.99) and Disgo DISTAB8104R 10.1” Tablet (£98.99). For whatever reason the Galaxy 2 Tab doesn’t have this feature in the cheaper models, and none of the Acer designs at this price point do either, annoyingly.

If you can do without a big monitor you can use almost any of the sub £200 tablets and all you need to do is add in a decent Bluetooth keyboard, preferably with a touch pad integrated. I’m happy to accept that typing a report on a system built like this isn’t as quick as it might be on a desktop PC, but it will work in a pinch, and it is very transportable.

An ideal keyboard for this purpose is the Microsoft Wedge Keyboard, which can be bought for around £55. Those working to a really tight budget might want to consider the iGo Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard for Tablets, which can be found for the princely sum of £28.99. The added bonus in this option is that you get a tablet, but as a desktop replacement it can be heavily compromised.

Final thoughts

Whatever route you decide to take, it’s worth taking a few minutes to make sure you’ve made exactly the right choices. If you’re relying on reusing a few parts from your existing equipment then make sure they’re compatible with the one you intend to buy.

That means if your IDE optical drive is a transplant candidate, that the system has an IDE port (because few do these days). And, if your PS/2 keyboard is coming too, check the system has that port and not just USB. Monitor connections, hard drive ports and memory slots might also need to be verified. If you don’t undertake this due diligence you might find that your ring-fenced budget has a hole, where you’re forced to spend more to address an overly optimistic assumption you made.

What really amazed me when I started looking for systems under £200 is just how many are available, what I’ve presented here is just the tip of an inexpensive iceberg. Depending what you go for you will dictate what extra parts you might need to complete your system, and almost uniformly that probably includes a valid operating system. For someone who has an old XP-era system, the cost of an upgrade can be remarkably low, and even the worst system I’ve detailed here isn’t useless by any standards.

One of the items I mentioned here is refurbished, and as such it is impossible to verify the condition of it before taking delivery. I’ve recently bought a refurbished Dell laptop through Tesco, who sell returned or store example systems that Dell has subsequnetly restored for them. That item was flawless, but the same level quality that you expect in new equipment can’t be guaranteed in anything labelled as Refurbished. You might get a bargain, but equally you might not.

Enjoy bargain hunting, though, it can be a really rewarding activity. If you can undercut these systems - and I’m sure it is possible - then you could well enjoy a few more years of computing that comes accompanied with a smug smile and an altogether wider wallet.

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