Are brand new computers on a shoestring budget actually worth buying?

New models of computers and laptops are continually released to the public, often with the latest CPUs, technologies and functionalities, to encourage prospective users to continuously upgrade from their current machines. Those users are especially tempted to upgrade through incentives such as trade-ins, where they bring older computers and laptops into retailers in exchange for discounts on a brand new desktop PC or laptop.

But when you have a limited budget on which to spend on a desktop PC or laptop, are brand new computers really worth buying at retailers across the UK? Are brand new parts for building a new computer from scratch a wise investment? Or is the money better spent buying a pre-owned or refurbished computer, or by just upgrading the computer you currently have with better parts?

Let’s imagine the following situation; you currently have a desktop PC that is beginning to show its age and is not performing as well as it used to, even after it has been optimised as much as it can be. You have a budget of only £200 with which to put towards the cost of parts or a complete desktop PC or laptop. How would you put that £200 to best use when deciding what to do? Well, there are a few options that you can take that fit into such a limited budget, and we explore what each option entails, and the pros and cons of each approach.

1) Buy a brand-new pre-built computer

A brand-new pre-built computer that you commonly see on the shelves or listed on the websites of many a retailer, has a set of specifications that are determined by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to meet a certain price point. OEMs often do this by offering different variants of a particular model with different CPUs, amounts of RAM, different size hard drives and/or SSDs, either a dedicated graphics card or just onboard graphics, ports and even different expansion cards.

We looked into what desktop PCs and laptops are available in August 2019 for less than £200 at mainstream retailers, including Argos, eBuyer, Currys/PC World, eBay and Amazon; after browsing what each retailer offered at that price point, we found that the available pre-built computers were rather modest machines with a basic set of core specs. These computers would be fine for people who plan to just browse the internet and edit documents, or who intend to keep their files stored in the cloud (and don’t keep a lot of files on their computer).

As pre-built computers are assembled and configured at the factory, they are practically ready for use right away. Because the entry-level CPUs often used in those computers tend to be low-power models, they consume less power and thus, in the case of laptops, usually translate into longer battery life. However, the fixed specifications of pre-built computers means that “what you see is what you get”; they may not be as easily upgradable in cases where the CPU, RAM and internal storage are soldered onto the motherboard.

2) Buy a second-hand, factory-renewed or refurbished computer

Second-hand, factory-renewed or refurbished computers often tend to be much cheaper than they were when they were fresh out of a factory; this is because these computers often tend to accumulate flaws like scratched lids or cases, missing rubber feet, or pressure marks on screen as they are being used and carried around from location to location, but they otherwise work just like they were when they were completely brand new. These computers typically vary from very recent models that may have been returned to the OEM due to a fault or a change of mind, to several generation-old machines that have been well-worn from years of activity, whether it’s just office work or lots of intense gaming.

When we looked at what second-hand and refurbished computers were on offer on sites like Amazon and eBay in August 2019, we were surprised to see some fairly recent computers being offered at just below the budget we set in our scenario. Some of those computers even came with SSDs installed, which helps make them more responsive overall than with a mechanical hard disk drive.

As well as being much cheaper than a similar brand new off-the-shelf computer, opting for a second-hand or refurbished computer helps to reduce your carbon footprint, since usually the computer would retain the same working parts as it did when it was built in the factory. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that a computer’s remaining useful life can be variable on the basis of its age and how often or heavily it was used, so it is as likely that it might last only a few more weeks as it is that it will last a few more years.

3) Build a brand-new computer from scratch

A custom-built computer can be an appealing option, especially if you have some experience in computer assembly. There are a wide range of computer parts that suit different budgets and needs, meaning that you are free to build whatever you need that suits your budget, whether it’s that monster gaming and productivity machine of your wildest dreams, a compact computer that happily sits in your living room and serves as a media hub for watching YouTube videos and movies, or even just a modest office computer for editing documents and spreadsheets.

We used the PC Part Picker website to spec together our hypothetical custom build desktop PC, based on our set budget; considering the tight budget we set ourselves, we managed to put together a reasonably specced desktop PC based around an AMD Athlon 200GE, an entry-level CPU with a modest integrated GPU that is also fine for some light gaming. Alongside the CPU, we opted for an ASRock B450M-HDV motherboard, a single stick of Patriot Signature Line 4GB DDR4-2400 RAM, a 120GB Crucial BX500 SSD, a GameMax Explorer micro-ATX mini tower case, and a GameMax GM 300W power supply that has an 80+ bronze certification. All in all, at the time of writing, the total cost of the parts came in at £175.95, including packaging and delivery, as specced on PC Part Picker. This means that a decent desktop PC with good performance at a shoestring budget is within the realm of possibility.

Custom-built laptops also exist, though these are usually more exotic than the typical off-the-shelf laptop. They come in the form of barebone kits that come with a keyboard, battery, AC power supply, chassis, display and motherboard with integrated CPU included, and the end user supplies the missing components in order to form the complete laptop. Many system builders offer custom-built laptops in this way as complete units that can be specified based on use cases and needs.

A custom-built desktop PC or laptop (where you are able to source the barebone laptop kit yourself) can be more desirable than an off-the-shelf computer, since you have more freedom in choosing the parts you want for your specific needs. You can more easily upgrade a custom-built desktop PC, and a laptop to a lesser extent, than a typical OEM machine, as with desktop PCs, you are not as constrained with the choice of parts that make up the computer as you can simply upgrade it with off-the-shelf components.

The main drawback with a custom-built machine is that it can be very easy to put together an unbalanced build that has one powerful component (usually the CPU and/or graphics card) but compromises on other parts, or a build that is not appropriate for a given use case. Trying to play the latest video games or carry out intensive prodictivity tasks with a low-power entry-level CPU in particular is like trying to get a hamster to tow a broken down passenger aeroplane off the runway to an on-site repair workshop; it would struggle badly during use, when that same CPU would be better utilised in web browsing, light productivity and in basic media servers. Also, buying parts as cheaply as possible can lead to an increased carbon footprint for the custom-built computer as a whole, as keeping to a set budget may necessitate buying the necessary parts from multiple online retailers and sellers.

4) Upgrade the existing computer with new parts

If your current computer otherwise still works, then it can still be worth making it last longer by adding more RAM, upgrading to an SSD, swapping out the old power supply for a better one, extending the computer’s functionality with expansion cards, or perhaps outfitting it with a good CPU/RAM/motherboard bundle. After performing the upgrade(s), the other existing parts remain in the computer.

At our workshop sessions, we have had various working desktop PCs and laptops that we have upgraded with SSDs, extra RAM, and pluggable accessories that add functionality such as wireless connectivity and Bluetooth. Usually, these computers would have become sluggish to perform basic tasks when they arrived at our pop-up workshops, and often remain fairly sluggish despite carrying out optimisation tasks such as malware removal, uninstalling unnecessary software and deleting junk files; in those cases, parts upgrades become the only way to improve performance of computers.

Upgrading parts can be a cost-effective way of improving the performance of older computers; in particular, swapping mechanical hard drives for SSDs and installing extra RAM are good places to start, as they offer the most tangible benefits on a limited budget. It can help extend the useful lifespan of computers, as the other parts installed are generally still usable with plenty of useful life left. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that if your computer is very old such that compatible parts are no longer available, and that swapping out the old components for new models becomes the only upgrade path available, then opting for a more recent machine (whether brand-new or refurbished) would probably be a better use for the budget.

So what’s the best use of the limited budget?

Having looked at the four possible options, we would say that each has their own merits. A brand-new off the shelf computer is arguably the most convenient option, since as they come already set up and ready to go, you can simply start using it right away. Generally speaking, the brand new OEM computers we looked at won’t literally blow your socks off in terms of outright performance, but they are usually the more power efficient choices with, for the budget, lower energy bills for desktop PCs and better battery life on laptops.

Refurbished computers are the most environmentally-friendly choice here, and can potentially offer more bang for buck than any of the other options. Sure, you typically won’t be getting the absolute latest and greatest features with these older machines, but if you’re willing to accept seeing some scrapes, scratches and scuffs here and there on a refurbished computer, then these machines are solid, tried and tested choices that will serve you well for years to come.

Custom-built machines offer the most freedom of choice for those of you who are willing to get stuck in with building your own computer. Even at low budgets, it has become feasible to build a reasonably powerful desktop PC that can even handle some light gaming duties. But just be sure that you have thought it through carefully before committing to a custom build machine; it’s worth thinking about;

  • What you intend to use your custom-built computer for;
  • Where your new computer will be based;
  • Whether or not you intend to upgrade your build at a later time as and when your use case changes

Unfortunately, if you were hoping to build your own entry-level laptop at a shoestring budget, then you’re out of luck here; the only laptop barebone kits we were able to find at online retailers that were not predominately aimed at trade, fell far outside our set budget, especially when fully built. This makes building conventional laptops unfeasible for the purposes of this article. At this point, those of you who are really interested in building your own laptops would probably be wondering, “Well then, how can I build my own laptop on a shoestring budget, anyhow?!”

Well, there is another way to build your own laptop that until this point, we have not covered; try a single board PC like a Raspberry Pi! These boards typically have the basics covered such as USB ports, CPU and RAM (both soldered onto the board), Ethernet port and audio jack, with varying arrays of connectors aimed at different purposes. You can either incorporate them into a laptop kit containing a chassis, keyboard, screen, touchpad, battery and other parts, or try your hand at building a laptop entirely from scratch and choosing parts yourself if you have a good degree of electronics assembly experience.

Finally, upgrading your current computer can be the cheapest way to achieve better performance or gain access to the latest features that you would normally find on brand new machines. Computer running slow? Simply add more RAM and/or an SSD. Fancy some gaming on a desktop PC? Drop in a decent graphics card. Want the latest features and/or better functionality without having to spend hundreds on a new machine? Just add in an expansion device such as a Wi-Fi card, a sound card, or even a USB PCI card.

In conclusion, we would say that opting for a refurbished computer or just upgrading your existing computer are generally the most economical choices as in both cases, you benefit from a smaller carbon footprint by reducing environmental waste, and a high level of performance and features on a shoestring budget. However, brand-new machines, whether custom-built or OEM-built, do have their own merits; laptops benefit from improvements in the power efficiency of components which can translate into longer battery life, while the better freedom of choice in desktop PC shoestring builds means that they can be geared either towards better performance or better energy efficiency. We would resist the temptation of repeatedly buying brand-new computers every few years purely for the sake of it, though, as doing so not only just wastes money, but also increases the amount of electronic waste and thus, the size of the carbon footprint.