The 6 Best Budget PCs in 2021

Need a new desktop computer but you're on a budget? We can help.

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The Rundown
The Acer Aspire TC-895 gives you all the power and upgradability you could ask for.
Of all the iconic Dell lines of desktops and laptops, the Inspiron remains at the top of the class.
If you have a little extra money to spend, the Mac Mini is definitely worth considering and it will be powerful enough to last a long time.
ChromeOS fans have a choice on this list as well.
The Next Unit of Computing, or NUC is Intel's showcase for its latest processors.
It can be built to specifications and it uses standard connectors that can be paired with just about any other equipment you already have.

The best budget PCs fill a lot of holes. They're not overly powerful, but they don't have to be. Not everyone has to edit videos or play intensive games. Sometimes, you just want to surf Facebook and play Solitaire. Maybe you want a PC to use as a backup in case your main computer goes down. Budget PCs also make great media centers. Whatever the case, you'll find a PC in this list that should fit your needs.

The overall cost of pre-built PCs has dropped precipitously from the early days of computer building. It's rarely necessary to piece together your own machine just to save a few bucks. Budget PCs are easier to set up because they're usually ready to go right out of the box. Plus, as a bonus, today's budget PC can be upgraded to a high-end PC later when your budget allows. 

That's one of the more important things to look for when shopping for a budget PC. You won't necessarily want to get locked into a budget PC forever. You may want to expand your computer in the years to come. Some obstacles to avoid in cases like this are soldering on RAM or hard drive, custom motherboards, mini-PCs, and All-in-one (AIO) PCs. Those will definitely prevent making upgrading your PC difficult. 

So without further ado, here are our expert picks for the best budget PCs you can buy today.

Best Overall: Acer Aspire TC-895-UA91

Acer Aspire TC 895-UA91
What We Like
  • Fast RAM and SSD

  • Included Optical drive

  • Full size tower

What We Don't Like
  • Only a Core-i3 processor

  • Sits at an odd angle

The Acer Aspire TC-895 gives you all the power and upgradability you could ask for. It's a full-size tower, measuring 13.39 inches x 6.42 inches x 13.78 inches (HWD) so there's plenty of room on the inside for upgrades. Initially, you have a 10th generation Intel Core-i3 processor, 8 GB of DDR4 RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. Really the only downside in these specifications is the Core-i3 processor. That's both because it's not the fastest you can buy but also, of all the specifications in a computer, the processor is typically the hardest to upgrade later.

The computer does come with an optical drive, which is something of a rarity these days. With all the downloading and streaming going on these days, it's nice to know you can pop in a DVD or CD and kick back and enjoy the media. The DVD reader/writer also allows you to burn discs for data backup. It's one of those things you don't really appreciate until you don't have one.

You also get Wi-Fi 6 which is great for future-proofing and there's a lot of I/O. There's a single USB-C port, seven USB-A ports, two HDMI ports, and a full-sized SD card reader. The tower comes with a mouse and keyboard, but no monitor, so be sure to factor that into your budget. The tower itself sits at an odd angle for better airflow, so it might not look right on your desk or floor, but that's really the only downside here. Overall, this is a great starter PC for under $500.

CPU: Intel Core-i310100 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 630 | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 512GB SSD

Best Dell: Dell Inspiron Desktop 3880 (2021)

Dell Inspiron Desktop 3880 (2021)
What We Like
  • Multiple configurations

  • Upgradable

What We Don't Like
  • Base config doesn't have SSD (you can add one)

  • No USB-C

Of all the iconic Dell lines of desktops and laptops, the Inspiron remains at the top of the class. You get a slightly smaller than normal tower that measures 12.77 x 6.06 x 11.54 inches (HWD). That hasn't changed from the previous generation. The Inspiron desktop is sold in a wide variety of configurations so you can upgrade as far as your budget allows on the outset and then continue to upgrade down the line as you can.

The base configuration comes with a terabyte of storage, though it is a hard disk drive as opposed to a faster SSD. You can upgrade that to an SSD if you want, but if you're looking to upgrade from the base configuration, we recommend upgrading the processor first. You can even add a 256GB SSD for around $30 and use that to run apps, while you use the HDD for storage. One of Inspiron's best traits is the sheer number of options you can set up from outset. 

You also get a lot of I/O in the tower itself. There are eight USB-A ports, but no USB-C which is a gross oversight in 2021. There's also an SD card reader, HDMI, and VGA video outs, integrated Ethernet, and two audio output jacks. What you get with this desktop is a ton of versatility both in the initial setup and in upgradability down the road.

CPU: Intel Core i5-10400 | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 630 | RAM: 12GB | Storage: 1TB HDD

"Dell’s Inspiron series takes a no-nonsense approach—you’ll love the price-to-processing ratio, but might find some of the specs a tad limiting." Jason Schneider, Tech Writer

Best Apple: Apple Mac mini (M1, 2020)

Apple Mac mini M1
What We Like
  • Blazing fast

  • Compatible ARM apps

  • Rosetta 2 compatibility layer

  • Decent price

What We Don't Like
  • Not upgradable

  • Few ports

  • Expensive

Apple introduced the M1 chip in late 2020 and since then has expanded most of its product line to the M1. That's because it's extremely powerful and fast. Our reviewer, Jeremy, put the Mac Mini through a series of benchmarks and they confirm that. He writes, "First up, I ran the Cinebench multi-core test. The Mac mini achieved a score of 7,662 in that test, putting it between an Intel Xeon E5-2697 at 3GHz and an X5650 Xeon processor at 3.66Ghz. That’s almost within spitting distance of an eight-core AMD Ryzen 7 1700X, but only about half the score of a 1950X Threadripper." Those scores put the Mac Mini in contention with some of the most powerful PCs out there. 

Unlike most of the PCs in this list, you simply cannot upgrade it beyond what you order initially. Not only is it a mini-computer, meaning there's no room inside the case for more components, but the components that are there are soldered to the motherboard. From the review, "the biggest disappointment here, aside from the fact that the M1 Mac mini didn’t receive any sort of aesthetic update, is that Apple removed two Thunderbolt ports and the ability to upgrade your memory. The first isn’t that big of an issue, since the Mac mini looked great before and still looks great. The lack of Thunderbolt ports, similarly, isn’t a huge deal, because there are a ton of ways to get around such a limitation. The lack of upgradeability certainly removes a degree of flexibility from the hardware, though, making it much more important to select the amount of memory and storage that you’ll be comfortable with for the life of the device."

Since upgradability is an attractive feature in a budget PC, we felt it necessary to point out that it simply isn't the case here. Plus, the Mac Mini starts at a higher price point than just about every other computer on this list. But, it's also the only Apple PC on this list, and we wanted to make sure Apple was represented. It is amazingly powerful hardware after all. So if you have a little extra money to spend, the Mac Mini is definitely worth considering and it will be powerful enough to last a long time. 

CPU: Apple M1 | GPU: Integrated 8-core GPU | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB SSD

"The M1 CPU features eight cores, including four performance cores and four efficiency cores, and the same chip also includes an eight-core GPU." Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Mac mini M1

Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

Best Chrome OS: Acer Chromebox CXI3

The Acer Chromebox CXI3 is a nice little ChromeOS computer.
What We Like
  • Fast

  • Very Fast

  • ChromeOS

  • VESA Mount included

  • Lots of I/O

What We Don't Like
  • Not upgradable

  • Only 64GB of storage

  • Chrome OS still needs maturing

ChromeOS fans have a choice on this list as well. In fact, ChromeOS was basically designed from the ground up to run on hardware that would otherwise be considered "underpowered" and "budget." It's the youngest operating system of the "big three", having just recently reached its 10th anniversary, but much of what you can do in a web browser, you can do on ChromeOS with ease. In fact, one of ChromeOS's main advantages is that it can run on hardware that would choke a Windows machine. 

Our reviewer, Erika, likens it to driving a sports car through a quiet neighborhood. She writes, "It won’t miss a beat as you open applications, search the web, or watch videos. With an 8th generation Intel Core i3 chip, 8GB of DDR4 RAM, and 64GB of Intel Optane storage, the ChromeBox handles lightweight productivity tasks well. According to Acer tech support, you can upgrade the RAM to up to 16GB for improved performance, but the 8GB should be sufficient for most users."  This is also a mini PC, so there isn't much room for upgradability, but that doesn't concern us nearly as much as a different PC. Chrome is so lightweight by design, that there won't be much call for upgrading this computer. It will run great for years. 

One really cool space saver that we love is that this PC comes with a VESA mount which means you can mount it to the back of the monitor you're using. That turns it into a sort of all-in-one computer, which saves space on the desk and makes the computer itself more manageable. Erika writes, "On each side of the CX13 sit the ports—two super-speed USB ports, a headphone jack, and a microSD card slot on one side; and, on the other side sits an Ethernet, HDMI, USB-C, three USB ports, and the connection for the power supply. Because the ports sit on both sides, when you place the CX13 in the stand or lay it flat on your desk, it kind of feels like wires are coming from everywhere. However, if you mount the CX13, this isn’t as much of an issue."

The base model of this ChromeOS computer can be had for less than $500. While the spec sheet doesn't look impressive, it doesn't have to be. The Core-i3 processor is more than enough to push this machine. We'd like to see more than 64GB of local storage. The cloud is great, but local storage works when the internet goes down. The Android app store helps considerably in terms of sheer functionality. If you're looking for a cheap little PC to run some games and surf the web, this is a great option.

CPU: Intel Core i3-8130U | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 620 | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 64GB Flash Solid State

"In benchmark testing, this particular model doesn’t score as well as the higher tier configurations with i5 or i7 chips, but the i3 chip still received respectable marks." — Erika Rawes, Product Tester

Acer ChromeBox CX13

Lifewire / Erika Rawes

Best Mini: Intel NUC 8 Mainstream Kit

Intel NUC 8
What We Like
  • Small footprint

  • Highly customizable

  • Lots of processing power

What We Don't Like
  • No hard drive or RAM included

  • Limited I/O

  • No OS included

Intel is a huge name in processor development, but, like many other manufacturers, it also builds hardware to showcase its processors. The Next Unit of Computing or NUC is Intel's showcase for its latest processors. In this case, we're recommending a NUC that is a few generations older. The main reason is that the only difference between generations of hardware is the generation of the processor. Accordingly, the NUC 8 is the 8th generation of the processor which is upgradable to Windows 11. 

The NUC is a mini PC that typically doesn't allow for number upgradability, but in this case, Intel designed the NUC so you can put in whatever hardware you want in there. It does not come with a hard drive, RAM, or any peripherals. The NUC is really designed for people who want to build out their own hardware, and have the knowledge set to do it.

There's an M.s 22x42/80 slot for NVMw or SATA SSD. That's a standard-sized slot and it gives you a lot of flexibility for the physical connections you need to make. There are dual channeled 2400 RAM slots that can take up to 32 GB of RAM.  You get a lot of included components here including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB Type-A, Thunderbolt 3, and Ethernet. You also get HDMI out and you can connect up to three monitors with it. 

Overall, this is a tinker's kit.  You can pop open the top and install any components you want (that will fit). This is definitely not a computer box for someone who doesn't know what they're doing. This is for people who want to build their own PC and have the chops to do it.

CPU: Intel Core i7-8559U | GPU: Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 | RAM: None | Storage: None

"This is a kit-style PC, so it isn't for the beginner user. But if you have the wherewithal, you can make this an insanely powerful entertainment setup." — Jason Schneider, Tech Writer

Best for Business: Dell OptiPlex 3080 Micro

What We Like
  • Great processor

  • Slim form factor

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • Minitower

Dell Optiplex computers are business-focused computers that provide similar configurations to their consumer counterparts but in a slimmer package. The Dell Optiplex 3080 has a number of different configurations, but we recommend the Core i5-10500T processor, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD. At this price point, we'd like to see more onboard storage, but beyond that, we can't complain given how slim this computer is.

The Optiplex 3080 comes with an HDMI and DisplayPort out, along with six USB-A ports and an Ethernet port. The case is very slim, but it's large enough to accommodate some additions over time and the case opens easily for quick access. 

The Optiplex also includes a keyboard and mouse. As mentioned, the Optiplex line is geared more toward business. It can be built to specifications and it uses standard connectors that can be paired with just about any other equipment you already have. If you're a business looking for some bulk orders, the Optiplex might be for you. If you're a consumer, we feel the Optiplex doesn't have enough to be worth its price.

CPU: Intel Core i5-10500T | GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 630 | RAM: 16GB | Storage: 256GB SSD

"This sleek little powerhouse is meant to mount nicely on Dell’s matching monitors, but still manages to feature a solid processor, as well as room for customization."Jason Schneider, Freelance tech writer

Final Verdict

Overall, we give our top nod to the Acer Aspire (View at Amazon) desktop computer. It has the right combination of power and value for the dollar. It starts out inexpensive and can last you a long time through upgrades.

Otherwise, it's hard to go wrong with the Dell Inspiron (View at Amazon). You have a lot of control over your initial purchase specifications, and you can still upgrade it over time if you choose. Plus, it's the only computer on the list with an optical drive which is less common these days, but still considered a nice-to-have.

About Our Trusted Experts

Alan Bradley previously served as the senior tech editor for Dotdash and is an experienced culture and tech writer/editor.

Jason Schneider is a writer, editor, copywriter, and musician with almost ten years' experience writing for tech and media companies. He is a consumer technology expert, which includes PCs.

Jeremy Laukkonen has been covering consumer technology and gadgets for Lifewire since 2019. He is a consumer technology expert who has reviewed PCs featured on this list.

Erika Rawes is a freelance tech writer who has tested more than 50 consumer technology products, including budget PCs on this list.

FAQs

How do you choose a desktop PC?
Budget will always be an important consideration, but to get the most out of your money when choosing the best desktop PC you need to take into account how you'll primarily be using it. For a home office, a competent CPU and plenty of storage should be a priority, while a gaming rig needs a powerful dedicated GPU and SSD storage to help shrink the time you spend staring at loading screens.

How often should you upgrade your PC?
Unless you're frequently swapping in new components, most users will find that a new desktop PC should last somewhere in the ballpark of five years before the hardware is obsolete. Push too far beyond that mark and you'll find your machine begins to struggle with increasingly demanding software, particularly for applications that generally stress PCs the most, like games.

How do desktop PCs compare to laptops?
The key difference between desktop computers and laptops is the compromise between performance and portability. You will almost universally get better performance per dollar from a desktop machine, while a laptop trades horsepower for a compact chassis that's easy to take on the go. While there certainly are laptops built around mighty hardware capable of rivaling all but the most high-end desktops, they tend to be absurdly expensive (and often approach the 'musclebook' category that sheds some portability for more powerful components).

Mac mini

 Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire

What to Look For in a Budget Desktop PC Under $500

All-in-One

Most budget PCs that clock in under the $500 mark don’t come with a monitor, and adding even a small one can end up breaking your budget. All-in-one (AIO) PCs are the exception because they’re literally monitors that have all of the necessary computer hardware built right in.

Ports and Connections

Manufacturers invariably end up cutting corners on budget-priced PCs to save you money. You may have trouble finding a PC under $500 that comes with USB-C ports, but there are a lot of options that include multiple USB 3.1 connections, built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and more.

Acer ChromeBox CX13

Lifewire / Erika Rawes

Upgradability

The great thing about buying a budget desktop is that you have the ability to upgrade most of the components later on. If you want the option to install a video card, an SSD, additional USB ports, or anything else, look for a PC that’s built-in an ATX tower case. If you go with an all-in-one or a mini PC, you’ll have more difficulty upgrading.

"If you would like to compromise on some features to save money, consider buying your new computer with an SSD drive but with less storage. [An] SSD drive gives a significant boost in performance, even for an older computer. With advancements to the cloud, you can store your documents online and purchase SSD with less hard drive space." — Michael Spivak, Chief Information Officer and IT Strategist at RealEstateBees

Processor

Above all things, the processor should be a primary focus when shopping for a budget PC. The main reason is because of all the components you'll get in a computer, the processor is the one that requires the most technical know-how to upgrade. That is assuming you intend to upgrade this PC over time. If this is an AIO PC, or a mini PC (like the Mac Mini), or you don't intend to ever upgrade, that's a different story. But if you're buying a budget PC with the intention to upgrade it down the line, your initial investment is best spent on getting the processor as fast and as new as you can get.

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