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Proven PCs for desktop buyers on a budget

Nov. 7, 2012 at 3:09 PM ET

The Dell Inspiron 660 ships with the new Windows 8.

By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com

Not too long ago, it seems, consumers buying an entry-level desktop could count on it coming with Microsoft’s Windows 7. Windows Vista was a distant memory, Mac OS X a pricey pipe dream, and Linux generally a do-it-yourself proposition. Now, price-conscious consumers looking at desktop PCs will find a few different operating systems, including Windows 8, which made its official debut on Oct. 26.

Cheapism has singled out three well-reviewed desktop computers with three distinct operating systems -- all for less than $500.

  • The Dell Inspiron 660 (starting at $480) features the new Windows 8, which has earned positive feedback from many corners. This desktop has an Intel Core i3-2130 processor, 6GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive (a terabyte equals roughly 1,000 gigabytes of storage), and a DVD-RW drive. It also offers a memory card reader and outdoes competitors with four high-speed USB 3.0 ports (plus four USB 2.0 ports). Online reviews declare this computer a solid performer from the popular Inspiron line. (Where to buy)
  • The Gateway SX2370-UR10P (starting at $480) comes with the tried-and-true Windows 7 Home Premium. Experts and consumers rave about the power for the price, saying this computer can even keep up with demanding PC games. Where most budget desktops have Intel central processing units, or CPUs, this one has a processor made by AMD: a quad-core A8-3820. The specs include 6GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive, a DVD-RW drive, and a memory card reader. (Where to buy)
  • The Samsung Series 3 Chromebox (starting at $330) is built around Google’s Chrome OS. It’s an entirely different animal designed for computer users who spend most of their time on the Web. Instead of running applications installed on the hard drive, this cheap little machine utilizes Google’s online apps and services. Consequently, it requires a reliable internet connection and won’t suit users needing powerful software such as Adobe Creative Suite. Still, many consumers find the experience similar to using a conventional PC, and experts say you can can boot up this blazing fast machine and be online in about 10 seconds. (Where to buy)

So, why consider Windows 7 given the newer and more novel alternatives? Reviews suggest that Windows 8 users face a formidable learning curve -- the new version doesn’t even have a Start menu -- and getting used to it may not be worth your time on a desktop that doesn’t take advantage of the touch-screen interface. Microsoft has said it will continue to support Windows 7 until 2020. If you buy a compatible Windows 7 machine, including the Gateway model mentioned above, before Jan. 31, you have until the end of February to change your mind and upgrade to Windows 8 for only $14.99.

Operating systems aside, the best budget desktops come with at least 4GB of RAM and integrate 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity. Computers at this price point typically have integrated graphics rather than more powerful video cards fit for 3D gaming. Often the price doesn’t include a monitor, and the Samsung Chromebox also lacks a keyboard and mouse. Where most desktops have large hard drives, the Chromebox has a 16GB solid state drive, or SSD, which accounts for much of the computer’s speed. With most everything taking place in the cloud, the Chromebox can get away with less local storage.

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