Can you even buy a proper gaming PC for £500, or approximately $700? Not a PC that occasionally turns its hand to the odd ancient game. Quake III will run on an old smartphone, but that's missing the point. Well, it's missing my point, which is to sniff out whether half a grand is enough for a PC bought specifically, or at least substantially, for gaming. If so what you should go for and what, exactly, do you get for your money?
For those of you on the other side of the Pond, getting granular about exactly what's available in the US is a little outside my comfort zone. I'm not expert on the subject of US PC builders.
But an exchange rate conversion minus the punitive 20 per cent sales tax you lucky lot avoid is the rough idea. Call it $700 or thereabouts. Likewise, any broader lessons regards US-specific big brands versus specialists should apply anywhere.
Also, my focus here is mainly pre-built PCs. We've done the whole pre-built versus DIY thing in depth fairly recently, so this piece is aimed purely at people who want the easiest road.
On, then, to those £500 PCs. Your first conundrum is what you might call big brand versus boutique. In the old days, that was a real choice. More recently, I sense the big boys somewhat relinquishing their interest in gamers, at the lower end of the spectrum at any rate.
There are a few exceptions, however. Obviously the likes of Alienware et al still do their thing for the well-heeled and price insensitive. But, Alienware does a few options in this vague pricing post code, too.
The Alieware Alpha console-come-Steam-Box thing starts at precisely £499 in the UK. That buys you an Intel Core i3 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M graphics. The latter comes confusingly as both an older Kepler GK104 GPU or the newer Maxwell (the same architecture used in the current crop of NVIDIA desktop graphics cards) GM107 thing, a la GeForce GTX 750Ti. But either way we're talking only just gameable.
Further factor in the stingy 4GB of single-channel RAM and a rather slow 5,400rpm magnetic hard drive and the proposition looks marginal at best. Alienware's more conventional X51 budget desktop thing starts at £599 and actually has worse graphics. So fuggedabowdit.
As for trying to wangle something gameable out the more mainstream lines from the big brands, well, it is occasionally possible to snag something interesting from 'outlet' style sources. But the downside is pretty epic inflexibility on spec, along with nasties like proprietary motherboards and cases that can make upgrades tricky. No thanks.
It's off, then, to those aforementioned boutiques. First the good news. Hit the 'Gaming System' links on many of these websites and you'll be offered plenty of choice, though bear in mind we're usually talking about the PC tower / box / whatever and that's it. No monitor, probably no keyboard and mouse.
That's fine as you probably already have those peripherals, and I class monitors as very much a stand alone purchase. Anyway, let's start with Yoyotech. For £479, they'll do you something with an AMD FX-4350 CPU and AMD Radeon R9 270X graphics, plus 8GB or RAM. There's no SSD, which is perhaps understandable, but also no option to add one. Annoying.
Anyroad, that sounds just about tolerable performance-wise, but I probably prefer their slightly budget-busting £529 option, which ups the ante to a quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU and Nvidia GTX 750Ti graphics, plus at least the option of an SSD. In reality, I'd really want to add that SSD and a GTX 760 graphics card, at which point I'd be comfortable I had a proper gaming PC. But the up front is now £639.
Next, let's hope over to Scan.co.uk. Their 3XS line starts slightly over budget at £549. For that you get AMD FX-4300 processing and R9 270 graphics, 8GB of RAM and a 1TB 7,200 spinning thing. Not too bad, but I'm not really feeling it. Scan also does a Core i3-plus-750Ti option for £559. That might be a better bet regards down-the-road upgradability. Both come with a three-year warranty, as does the Yoyotech option.
Another interesting option is to go with one of Scan's conventional home PCs and then upgrade it. This box comes with a Core i5 quad-core chip for £379 but uses Intel integrated graphics. The warranty drops down to two years from three, too, and there's no pre-installed OS, which may or may not be an issue for you.
That leaves you £130 for a decent GPU while maintaining the £500 budget. Go £20 over budget and you could have that Core i5 paired with AMD Radeon R9 280 graphics. And that, folks, is a proper gaming rig. That 280 GPU was once as good as it got for games.
I'd want to clarify if the 500W ScanFX PSU could hook up with the AMD GPU, but it's certainly promising. Next up is Overclockers.co.uk. Their vanilla desktop PCs are a bit more configurable.
Spec up something with a quad-core Core i5, a Samsung 850 Evo in 120GB trim and 8GM of RAM and you're looking at £440 with a three-year warranty. Add that Radeon R9 280 GPU separately (it's not an option) and it's £600 all-in for a very gameable rig with solid-state storage. Nice, if over budget.
Overclockers also has a wide range of specifically gaming PCs. One that catches my eye is the Titan Dagger (yes, really) with Intel's massively overclockable Pentium Anniversary chip and GeForce 960 graphics in a BitFenix box for £527. That's with a 1TB magnetic drive, but you can swap over to a 120GB Sammy SSD for just £15, or perhaps better yet to the 240GB option for £45. Intriguing, eh?
Then there's this compact LAN rig that can be had with Core i3 CPU and Nvidia 960 graphics for £544. Not bad at all. These Overclockers options are sans OS, by the way. Windows 8.1 adds about £80 on top, but hopefully you have a copy already.
Really, we're just scratching the surface. That's just a few rigs from three of the better known suppliers. So the best news is that there are plenty of options. Make £500 absolutely non-negotiable and require a factory Windows install and you're looking at very modest albeit still actually gameable performance, a magnetic drive and probably an AMD platform. It's also worth noting that the context here is 1080p gaming. Higher resolutions will require more cash for really smooth high-detail performance.
Add in a little flexibility - use your existing Windows licence, as a for instance - and suddenly something surprisingly gameable for not much more than £500 looks feasible. Colour me pleasantly surprised. Exactly what qualifies as 'best' is debatable. But what's clear enough is that £500 ain't such a bad budget after all.