New computers: what can your budget buy?

Features James Hunt Jan 4, 2013

What’s the economic difference between buying a PC and customising one?

When the time comes to buy a new PC, there’s often a level of disconnect between the kind of system we want and the kind of system we can actually afford. No-one likes to compromise, but working within a budget is the unfortunate reality for most of us. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a good deal, or that your money is going to be wasted. In many ways, the art of building a PC is the art of balancing your budget.

Broadly speaking, if you want to buy a new PC you have two options: buy one that someone else has built, or put one together yourself. Neither course of action is inherently better, and both options have their own advantages and disadvantages - especially when it comes to making use of your budget.

Pre-build PCs, for example, tend to be well-balanced and priced for demand, which means buyers can get fantastic discounts on low-end systems. High street retailers even like to throw in free extras like printers and webcams in, to ‘sweeten’ deals for casual users. However, such systems often keep their prices price low by containing technology that’s heading rapidly towards obsolescence, and chain retailers in particular sell systems that are infuriatingly cluttered with unnecessary software. Convenience often ends up being traded against inefficiency.

By contrast, a bespoke, custom-build system will contain only and exactly the parts you want. They may take a little longer to be put together, and you’ll pay a labour premium which might mean it’s still not as cheap as buying the components yourself, but your ability to tweak the budget and contents means that whatever you end up with will be more appropriate for your needs.

With those factors in mind, we’ve trawled the internet looking for some of the best pre-build systems out there and compared them against those you can construct using the Computer Planet’s system builder. The question we hope to answer is just how good a computer you can get for your money, and does it make more sense to buy one someone else has put together or choose the parts yourself. And maybe, along the way, we’ll convince you that buying from big retailers isn’t the only option worth pursuing…

Budget: Approx. £350

Budget systems work on two levels. On the one hand, you can approach them as a cheap, self-contained machine that’ll allow you to do the online basics for the smallest possible expense. Or, alternatively, you can treat them as a base on which future upgrades and enhancements can be applied as, piece by piece, you construct the system you’ve always wanted as and when you can afford to. Either way, you get a capable computer - even if you’re only spending £300 or less!

Pre-build: Aria Technology Gladiator Pronto G530
Price: £307.96
CPU: Intel Celeron G530 (2 x 2.40GHz)
RAM: 1 x 4GB Corsair DDR3 1066MHz
Storage: 500GB SATA 6Gbps Hard Drive
Case: Cooler Master Black Micro-ATX Chassis
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics (Sandy Bridge)
Optical Drive: DVD +/- RW Drive w/ m-Disk Support
Power Supply: 430W Corsair Builder Series 80PLUS Bronze
CPU Cooling: Standard Intel CPU Fan
Motherboard: Gigabyte Intel H61
Sound: 7.1 HD Sound (on-board)
Wireless: None
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium

If you want a budget pre-build that can meet the standards you’d expect of a retail desktop machine, the Gladiator Pronto G530 from Aria PC Technology is one such example. Building it around a dual-core Celeron G530 (2.4GHz) means it’s never going to impress with its speed, but the fact that it sits in a Sandy Bridge (Socket LGA1155) motherboard means that you could - potentially - upgrade it as far as a Core i7 in the future. This makes the G530 a good choice if you want a base for future improvements.

4GB of memory is more than adequate for this price range, although note that it’s a single 4GB module, which is slightly worse (but cheaper) than a 2GB pair. A 500GB SATA 6Gbps hard drive offers a more than reasonable amount of storage. Too much, if anything, for an entry level system (you won’t hear us complaining, mind you).

The Cooler Master Micro-ATX Tower case means there’s not a huge amount of space inside, so future upgrades are limited, but it does mean that you save space on housing the system itself. Graphics come from Sandy Bridge’s on-board Intel HD Graphics 2000, which should be able to play simple or older games, but it’s not going to offer spectacular visuals on modern 3D titles. A wireless network adaptor is also notable in its omission.

As is usual for pre-builds, there’s no monitor, mouse or keyboard included, so remember to tack another £70-£80 onto the price to get the true cost of buying this system if you don’t have those already. Even so, this is a fairly competitive PC for the price point. A few tweaks and it could’ve been perfect.

Custom-Build: Computer Planet Customised GX250 Gaming PC
Price: £326.80
CPU: AMD Athlon II X2 250 (2 x 3.0GHz)
RAM: 1 x 2GB Generic DDR3 1066MHz
Storage: 80 GB SATA 3GB/s Hard Drive
Case: Standard ATX Tower
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 210 1GB
Optical Drive: Samsung 24x DVD Rewriter
Power Supply: Standard 350W PSU
CPU Cooling: Standard AMD CPU Fan
Motherboard: Gigabyte 78LMT-S2P
Sound: 7.1 HD Sound (on-board)
Wireless: None
Operating System: Windows 8 Standard

Starting with the standard base, we’ve customised Computer Planet’s GX250 into something resembling Aria’s system. If nothing else, the results show that when you’re shopping at the low-end of the market, the superior economies of a pre-build mean you can get a much better system than if you try and customise one yourself. Even though the G530’s power isn’t necessarily greater than the GX250’s, the specs are generally higher, the hardware more modern, and it’s really hard to love a system with an 80GB hard drive and only 2GB of RAM.

A big problem was the lack of an operating system in the price. Computer Planet’s typical user is likely to have access to one already, but for this entry-level system, it seemed unfair to assume that of everyone. Unfortunately, the most reasonable OS on offer was a retail copy of Windows 8 Standard, costing £65, which meant a lot of cuts to fit the budget - a fifth of the cost goes on OS alone!

To save money, we swapped out the fancy-looking X-Blade ‘gaming’ case for a visually unimposing but functionally identical ATX tower, which shaved £14 off the Pre-VAT total. Low-power machines don’t benefit from sophisticated cases like high-end ones might, so it’s purely an aesthetic (and financial) choice. At the same time, we dropped down the frankly unnecessary 700W PSU to a 350W PSU, saving a further £9.

350W is still more than powerful enough for a system like this - we checked, and despite a separate graphics card, online calculators suggest it’ll requires no more than 200 watts to run. Even an inefficient 350W supply can deliver comfortably more than that. Dropping the GeForce GT610 to a GeForce 210 (still equivalent to the Intel HD 2000 graphics in Aria’s Gladiator Pronto G530) saves a whopping £2.

These savings allow us to squeeze an operating system into the budget and the system just about meets the minimum specs to run it. If you’ve already got an operating system to install, you can put together a much better PC within the same budget, but what we’ve mainly learned from this experience is that customisation isn’t a process that favours entry-level buyers and to be honest, we knew that anyway.

Budget: Approx. £600

At £600, you’re looking at a mid-priced machine of reasonably high power. This is the sort of range that most people should expect to buy a desktop. Computers at this level are priced about the same as the cheapest notebooks and the most expensive tablets, but they’re vastly more capable than both, particularly suited to general tasks. Although they perform at their best when used for browsing and work situation, they can also be called upon for more resource-heavy tasks, and will even make a serviceable gaming PC if you’re not planning to play anything too complicated or looking for Quad-HD resolutions.

Pre-Build: Chillblast Fusion Neutrino
Price: £559.99 (Includes Monitor)
CPU: Intel Core i5-2500K (4 x 3.3GHz)
RAM: 2 x 4GB PC3-10666 DDR3 memory
Storage: 1TB SATA 6Gbps HDD
Case: CIT Shadow ATX
Graphics: Intel HD 3000 Graphics
Optical Drive: 24x DVD-RW/CD-RW Optical Drive
Power Supply: 500W EZCool PSU
CPU Cooling: Arctic Cooling Freezer 7
Motherboard: Asus P8H61-M (Intel H61)
Sound: On-board HD audio
Wireless: None
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium

The Fusion Neutrino is about the minimum system you should be looking for at this price. It’s starting to show its age, but it’s also convincingly competitive. A Core i5-2500K paired with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive should be enough to meet your computing needs for a while yet, and even though there’s no graphics card the on-board Intel HD 3000 graphics should allow you to play some games - although there’s space for a GPU upgrade if you want proper performance.

It’s a shame to see a slightly under-performing motherboard, and it soon becomes clear where corners were cut. There’s no capacity for overclocking, which is a real pity because the i5-2500K has near-mythical ability to be overclocked. What’s even worse is that there are only two memory slots. For some, though, these are inconveniences rather than deal-breakers - but if you’re a fan of upgrading and tweaking, it’s clearly not the machine for you.

Unlike some systems, you get a monitor included in the price, although it is a rather weedy 21.5” AOC display. This is one of the problems with buying a prebuild uncustomised: the price may include things you don’t actually want. However, that’s slightly mitigated by the OEM copy of Windows 7, speakers and input peripherals, which are also included in the price. It’s still a bargain, even once you factor in a monitor almost no-one wants, and the components make it a solid performer in all areas. It’s not going to turn heads, but if you want an pre-built all-rounder that won’t let you down, this is almost exactly the specs you should be aiming for.

Custom-Build: Customised Computer Planet System
Price: £594.82
CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K (4 x 3.4GHz)
RAM: Corsair 2 x 4GB XMS3 1333MHz
Storage: 1 TB Seagate SATA-III
Case: Cooler Master Elite 335 ATX
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GT 640
Optical Drive: 24x DVD/CD Re-Writer
Power Supply: Cooler Master 500W PSU
CPU Cooling: Arctic Cooling Freezer 7
Motherboard: Gigabyte B75
Sound: On-board 7.1 HD Sound + Logitech S120 Speakers
Wireless: Wireless LAN 54Mbps
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium

Once you open up the budget a little, a custom PC can really come in its own. With a price limit of around £600, you’d expect something powerful enough to run applications and modern games at a reasonable level, and that’s just what we were able to build.

The CPU, an Intel Core i5 3570K, is a quad core Ivy Bridge design that runs at 3.4GHz. The unlocked multiplier means you can potentially overclock it to even greater speeds, which is why we also opted for the slightly more hefty Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 fan instead of the default Intel one. A Core i5 is exactly the kind of mid-price chip you’d expect to find in a good PC, and we’re happy to say that this will be fast enough for casual users of any stripe.

8GB of DDR3 RAM is a substantial amount for a mid-range system, which reflects the generalised nature of the PC. This isn’t designed to run only large, single instance-applications (like games) - rather, it’s aimed at the sort of user who wants to multi-task and multi-manage applications together too. It’s still fairly formidable gaming machine, though. A 1TB hard disk is big enough for the sort of general use this system is designed for, providing space to store media and applications long-term.

You could shave a fair amount off this by losing the graphics card - Gigabyte B75 boards do, after all, include the necessary support for the Sandy Bridge GPU, so if you’re not a gamer and wanted to save money by jettisoning a dedicated graphics card, we wouldn’t blame you. Overall, though, it’s a nice-looking system as it is, and the price is fantastic - there was even enough room in the budget for a dedicated wireless cards and pair of speakers!

Budget: Approx. £1,000

High-end PCs have many advantages. Spend £1,000 on a system, and you can expect it to meet any task expertly, whether that’s gaming, photo and video editing, or simply browsing the internet. You can take advantage of the latest technologies, and get access to far more power than most systems could offer. But even better than that - if you buy a high-end machine, you can be sure that it’ll remain competitive well into the future. The more you spend, the longer it’ll be before your system’s out of date, and you’ll definitely get your money’s worth in the long term.

Pre-Build: Overclockers Vortex i7
Price: £993.59
CPU: Intel Core i7-3770 (4 x 3.5GHz)
RAM: 2 x 4GB Geil Black Dragon 1600MHz
Storage: 60GB SSD + 1TB HDD
Case: BitFenix Alpha Merc Mid-tower
Graphics: AMD HD Radeon 7970 3GB
Optical Drive: OcUK 24x DVD±RW SATA ReWriter
Power Supply: Power & Cooling 600W PSU
CPU Cooling: Default Intel
Motherboard: MSI Intel Z77
Sound: 7.1 HD Sound
Wireless: Wireless LAN 54Mbps
Operating System: No OS (extra cost)

Housed in a rather imposing BitFenix Alpha Merc, you can be sure from the start that the Vortex i7 is a PC designed to impress. Its pedigree from Overclockers means you’re guaranteed expert build quality and reliability: systems are stress-tested for 8 hours before being shipped.

The case hides a formidable interior, including an Intel Core i7-3770, although it’s a shame that you don’t get the 3770K by default. 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, a 600W power supply and a Radeon HD 7970 means you’ve not only got one of the best graphics cards to come out in the last few years, you have the juice to back it up. 

A 60GB SSD is a nice nod towards improving game speeds with modern hardware, and with some steady space management, it might even prove sufficient, but to be honest, we don’t think much of including a wimpy SSD alongside bags of HDD space. A 60GB SSD is hardly worth the money it costs, and prices are already dropping fast. In a year it’ll just look ridiculous. And we know we keep complaining about it but, especially in a gaming system, a built-in wireless card would’ve been nice to ensure the CPU isn’t propping up a cheap USB adapter.

Still, aside from those minor complaints, this is a system that looks great, has tonnes of power, and features some of the best components around. You don’t get an OS in this price, but you can add Windows 8 for £25 - pennies to anyone considering a PC at this scale (and hey, if it does stretch your budget, get rid of that SSD drive). It’s not the best system you can get for £1,000, but it’s definitely up there - not least because of who’s building it.

Custom-Build: Customised Computer Planet GX2000
Price: £973.31
CPU: Intel Core i7-3770K (4 x 3.5GHz)
RAM: 4 x 4GB Corsair PC3-10666 1333MHz
Storage: 1 TB Western Digital Caviar Green
Case: Coolermaster Elite 430
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 - 2GB
Optical Drive: 22x dual-layer DVD/CD writer
Power Supply: Corsair 800W Gaming PSU
CPU Cooling: Arctic Freezer 7
Motherboard: Gigabyte B75
Sound: 7.1 HD Sound
Wireless: Wireless LAN 54Mbps
Operating System: Windows 8 Standard 64-Bit

We used Computer Planet’s mid-market GX2000 gaming PC as the basis for our high-end system, because it was already very good to begin with. And by the time you get close to the £1,000 budget limit, it’s frankly spectacular. We’ve upgraded the CPU to an Intel Core i7-3770K, which is one of Intel’s best Ivy Bridge chips with Intel HD 4000 on-board graphics (but that doesn’t matter, because you won’t be using it).

The chip, of course, is the multiplier unlocked version, and since the Arctic Freezer 7 CPU cooler is around 30% better than Intel’s own fan, the system should already be capable of handling any temperature increase that overclocking might entail. Unlike the Vortex i7, there’s additional capacity in this system to be taken advantage of.

16GB of RAM is hefty even for a gaming system, and the Corsair branding means you’ll get good speeds and performance. A 1TB Caviar Green hard drive is suitably high-end, and while an SSD would substantially improve performance, you’d also be looking at an extra £100-£200 just to get one of a respectable size. If you’re on a budget at all, SSDs are still out of reach. The 800W PSU allows you plenty of space to expand in the future, but it can also ensures the graphics card is given the space it needs to operation. And speaking of which, the systems graphics are taken care of by a GeForce GTX 660 - the best value card on the market right now (even if it’s a bit less powerful than the Vortex’s Radeon).

As well as the hardware, you also get an operating system included in the price, but if you have one already you can happily save another £65, making this an even better deal for people who are looking to replace a current system rather than build one from a scratch. To our delight, we even found room in the budget for a wireless network card!
What it tells us, though, is that the more you spend, the better the deal becomes on selecting your system’s parts from scratch. You can’t beat the convenience of a pre-build, but if the budget really is your concern, putting yourself in charge of choosing components is a quick way to get a decent discount.

Is price your top concern?

There’s a question that not everyone likes to ask themselves when they’re shopping around for a new computer, and that’s this: are low prices really the bargains they look like? We’re not just talking about overpriced components, here. We’re talking about the value of your purchase, as opposed to the mere cost of it.

After all, it’s not just a race to the bottom. Some things are actually worth paying more for. Current generation Intel CPUs, at any level, are superior to AMD chips, so you can often get a bargain on AMD hardware, but when it comes to a future upgrade path, or when the hardware starts to age, your cheaper AMD system could prove a dead-end. You’ve emphasised short-term decisions over long-term ones, and that’s ultimately lost you money.

Furthermore, sometimes money isn’t even the issue. Buying from a chain retailer might get you a long warranty, but if something goes wrong with the system you’re unlikely to get a personal service. You send them your machine, they’ll wipe it, and replace the broken parts and you’ll get it back. It’s inconvenient and annoying. But a smaller company might be able to preserve your preferences, installations and documents under their warranty terms. Maybe they cost a little more, but the personal service they offer could outweigh the extra money.

We’re not suggesting that price shouldn’t be a major factor in your thinking when buying a PC, on the contrary, these days it’s obviously something most people have to pay constant attention to. We can’t all afford dual-graphics card systems with custom-overclocks and water cooling. 

What we are suggesting, though, is that you pay particular attention to balancing the price of whatever you buy with the value of the services and experience of the company that surrounds it. Maybe you pay a premium for the personal touch, maybe you don’t, but remember that there’s usually more to consider than price alone.