I thought the GPU was the East German Secret Police?
December 8, 2017 9:19 AM   Subscribe

The motherboard on my 11 year old son's computer failed on Monday. I need your suggestions for a solid desktop computer we can buy him (needs below) under $500.

This needs to be a gaming oriented machine. He currently plays a ton of Terraria in co-op with far flung friends nationwide, and also plays quite a bit of Minecraft, particularly on multiplayer servers.

His old PC would not support playing online and also simultaneous video chat (audio chat did work), and I would like this new computer to be robust enough to handle that. (I get that all of this is fairly standard now - online server play + voice chat.) BUT I also need this computer to grow with him. He's just dipping a toe into the larger world of being interested in online gaming and game design (Cuphead has been a sort of gateway to looking at indy games on Steam - he recently downloaded and played through Skelemania, for example), and of course wants to eventually be able to record and render YouTube videos.

Our family tech support (my brother in law) has recommended a number of machines that are in the $700 - $900 range, which is too much for us right now.

Can you recommend a sub $500 desktop machine that will work for this kid for 2-3 years and that I can order and have in hand fairly quickly? Thanks!
posted by anastasiav to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I suggest you (and he) build a desktop computer for him. Better bang for your buck than a pre-built and you'll turn the acquisition process into a learning process for him. Parts mostly snap together easily and you can use resources like /r/buildapc on Reddit to decide what to buy (or to ask for help with your build). If you have him compose a post asking for build help it will probably go well -- that usersub loves helping kids with their builds.

All of that said, you are going to have trouble meeting your requirements with a <$500 price point. Your brother-in-law's $700-900 figure is more realistic for something decently capable (self-built or not).
posted by killdevil at 9:26 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I recently replaced our failing desktop with something I put together. Total cost was sub-$450, not including monitor. We are still using the integrated GPU on the motherboard. It is far superior to what we previously had and will suffice until I'm ready to drop $100+ on a dedicated card. I'll try to go find the specs for what I built and the guides I was loosely following.
posted by ericales at 9:45 AM on December 8, 2017

Seconding building a PC. It is so much easier than one would think. Building my first PC with my dad is what sparked my IT career. For $500 you can definitely build a machine that will handle Minecraft and Terraria plus simultaneous video chat.


The site above has some great configurations that people have put together. It'll include budgets and handy part lists.
posted by sewellcm at 9:48 AM on December 8, 2017

Something like this should be useful as well.
posted by ericales at 9:53 AM on December 8, 2017

I built a PC loosely following this guide, and it turned out great. You'll get much more for your buck building it yourself, and it's obscenely simple to do, and most importantly, it's likely to be upgradable. They're just big, complicated looking legos. Youtube have a bajillion guides on how to assemble everything. The $500 price point is going to be tough, but it's possible. It might not do everything that hits his requirements.

If you must go pre-bought, I've used various NUC computers for certain tasks. No idea if they'll work for the kid's requirements though. Some might?
posted by furnace.heart at 9:54 AM on December 8, 2017

Response by poster: Hey folks -- yeah, no, building a PC is not even remotely an option. Even if I had the skills or knowledge (which I absolutely do not) I do not have the time. I'm am currently working 95+ hour weeks and will be through the end of the year. I am not spending my one day off a week failing at building a him computer and ending up with an angry kid and an angry me and a lot of wasted money from probably broken or useless components. "Build it yourself" does not answer the question, in this case. Sorry.

I can easily find at least a dozen sub $500 machines out there listed as "gaming" machines. But I don't have the knowledge to know which ones are better and which ones are terrible. I know we won't get the bestest best thing, but what's the best out of what's available?
posted by anastasiav at 10:04 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Does he use any mods when playing Minecraft (especially graphics mods) or is it all vanilla? For plain vanilla MC the built-in Intel GPU ought to work fine so you won't have to worry about a graphics card, which is a major part of the expense for a gaming PC.
posted by neckro23 at 10:09 AM on December 8, 2017

Response by poster: He's currently largely vanilla because anything else degraded the performance too much. He would prefer mods, particularly the goofball mods like lucky block and hats and that sort of thing. Not so much shaders as goofy mods that do stupid things. He was able to run Pixelmon before they shut it down.
posted by anastasiav at 10:16 AM on December 8, 2017

This is a challenging price point for a gaming PC and there will be a lot it doesn't have. I get you don't want to build one, that said, it is more cost-effective. But not everyone has time as you indicate.

This machine gets good amazon reviews and the CYBERPOWERPC brand has some recommendations online (this review has links to some videos of this machine playing various games) (the top pick here isn't available but the one I linked is very close).

That machine has decent CPU and GPU power for the money and is passable in most ways. It will not impress anyone, but it should work for what your kid wants. It lacks a wifi adapter - you'll need a cheap USB one or an internal one, they're not expensive. USB is easy to install.

If you can afford $750 you can get a lot more machine - that machine should last longer, do much more and is probably better value for money, but it's plain old more money out the door. A similar one for $680 is also decent.
posted by GuyZero at 10:49 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah then you're going to want something with a half decent CPU. Just a warning that lots of the budget gaming boxes skimp on the CPU in order to give you a better GPU, which is probably the opposite of the compromise you want.

In other words: Most games traditionally don't use the CPU a lot so having a good GPU is more important for those. Minecraft is kind of the opposite, although there are a lot of graphics mods out there that really abuse the GPU (because lots of MC players have good gaming PCs and otherwise all that power is going untapped).

IMO you should probably go for a basic Intel i5 system -- AMD is way worse for games (Ryzen notwithstanding). An i5 should also have the Intel HD or Intel Iris graphics built-in which are probably good enough for MC. If it isn't, a cheap graphics card is easy to add later.
posted by neckro23 at 11:04 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is a good buy for a machine without a dedicated graphics card and per neckro23, maybe it's a better choice overall. I really don't know what Minecraft needs in the gpu vs cpu department. You can definitely upgrade it with a dedicated graphics card later on. It gets an adequate review.
posted by GuyZero at 11:12 AM on December 8, 2017

I will disagree with GuyZero: The only OH GOD DON'T is: don't get a machine with an AMD FX. AMD has moved on to the next socket so upgrading the cpu, which wouldn't normally be a big deal, will not be realistically possible. The magic words you're looking for on cpus are "Kaby Lake" or "Ryzen." And for $500, you will probably be looking at upgrading stuff.

This one at Walmart or this other one are not atrocities before God. Both are still a bit penny wise and pound foolish, but if that's what your circumstances dictate than it is. Just from specs the first HP one looks like better immediate value for money, --BUT-- the second one with the AMD chip will almost certainly have a better upgrade path as (a) AMD has committed to their current socket for another few years and (b) that machine is more likely to use standard industry components instead of the weird-ass incompatible stuff that HP and Dell sometimes use.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:50 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Upgrading later is ok. My brother in law can and will upgrade things, but he's far away.

I should also mention that my son has a number of social interaction issues (he's diagnosed with autism), which is why I have to get something ASAP. Over the past year he's developed some wonderful close friendships with other kids -- his first close friendships ever -- largely as a result of gaming with them and hanging out online. Being offline means that connection is broken, so I need to fix it as soon as I can, even if its not perfect.

Thanks for the suggestions so far. If there are more I should look at, feel free to suggest more.
posted by anastasiav at 11:56 AM on December 8, 2017

Is there a trustworthy store in your area that sells used PCs? You might be able to get more bang for your buck that way, and wouldn't have to wait for something to be shipped to you. If you did find something, you could always post the specs back in here for feedback.
posted by Otis at 12:46 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'll just add a vote for GCU [...]'s first suggestion. Reasoning:
  • It's pretty much comparable to the $750 option GuyZero listed in terms of power, with maybe just a bit less of an upgrade path on the CPU. Upgrading other things (add an SSD, increase memory) will have bigger impacts than upgrading the CPU, and I wouldn't worry about any CPU upgrade from the i5 anyway. So: good value.
  • It has a very solid CPU and a very solid graphics card. You're unlikely to get anything better for the price.
  • It's available for pickup today in a Walmart near me, so stands a good chance of being available near you as well.
If you hunt around, okay, you might find something for a bit less money and/or something a bit more powerful. Time is an issue for you, though, and this one will definitely be more than good enough for what you've described. This internet stranger says go for it.
posted by whatnotever at 4:46 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're heart-set on desktop, I'll third (fourth? nth) the recommendations to just build one yourself. It's dead simple nowadays as all the parts are standardized. With a little creativity (and some Amazon and eBay usage!) you should be able to build a great rig within your budget.

Another option is get a certified used unit from some business supplier, but honestly I'm not sure it's worth the price premium over a DIY build. Maybe if you were a business which needs a warranty...

As far as gaming: get the best GPU you can buy, even at the expense of CPU power. (Hell, pretty much any modern CPU has oodles of power compared to 5 years ago!)

Best of all, you can always give the gift of an upgrade later for Christmas/birthday/Kwanza/non-denominational-holiday presents! ;)
posted by -1 at 6:42 PM on December 8, 2017

I've had surprisingly good luck buying computers off of Ebay.

The budget GPUs of the moment are the Nvidia GTX 1050 and the Radeon RX 460. Get a computer with one of those and a Core i5 CPU, and you'll be doing the best you can under the circumstances.

Relevant Ebay searches:
i5 GTX 1050, max $500.
rx 460, max $500.

Most of these appear to be refurbished office computers which were upgraded with a GTX 1050 or RX 460.

Personally, I would go with one of the sellers who has dozens to sell - look for the "56 sold" or "28 sold" on the listing. This means that they've got a big batch of off-lease equipment from a corporation. If anything is wrong with the computer they send you, they'll probably have a bunch of the same or similar computers that they can send as a replacement.

The one thing that a computer like this won't have is shiny blinkenlights. They are, and look like, boring office computers. They have all the parts that the need for decent gaming performance, but they might make your son sad because they don't look cool. It might be worth asking him if he'd rather have something like this instead, even if the performance is slightly worse.
posted by clawsoon at 12:38 PM on December 9, 2017

Craigslist is occasionally worth looking at, too - like this guy, who lives near you and says he'll deliver. He might be worth contacting, even if not for that specific computer. Take him up on his Skype offer and ask him what he could build and deliver for $500 that meets what you're looking for.
posted by clawsoon at 1:08 PM on December 9, 2017

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