PC gaming can be a costly hobby, with parts and pre-built PCs alike commanding a pretty penny. For some, the price is offputting and adds to the allure of console gaming. Nevertheless, it is possible to get the best gaming desktop for you without throwing away all of your money. There will be sacrifices to make, be that in hardware or ultimately the resolution, frame rate, and detail settings in some of your games. Likewise, if you're looking to get into some esports-friendly titles like League of Legends or CS:GO, a PC in this price bracket will be plenty.
Note: We're only pricing the actual PC at under $500, and a keyboard, mouse, and monitor is required for any desktop PC at any price point.
Best Overall: HP EliteDesk 705 G4
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HP EliteDesk 705 G4
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This tiny desktop PC isn't designed as a gaming rig, quite the opposite, in fact. You'd normally see these lining office desks, but the special party piece is that inside it has one of AMD's desktop APUs, which in turn means it has enough graphics power to actually play some games.
The Vega 11 integrated graphics provide 11 GPU cores, and while AMD might have been playing catch up to NVIDIA, it's a whole different tale when it comes to integrated graphics. Lighter titles will absolutely fly, and it's even possible to play several more demanding older titles on one of these with some compromises. The CPU portion is also pretty capable, especially for this kind of money.
The small form factor has many advantages, but it does also limit future upgrades. You won't be slapping a graphics card in it, for example, further down the line. And without Thunderbolt 3, you can't use an eGPU either, so what you have is what you have. But it's got plenty of ports, and aside from being able to game a little, it's an excellent, affordable desktop PC.
Buying a gaming PC for under $500 is pretty hard, especially if you're looking to buy new in 2020 with the increase in remote working having sucked up much of the hardware. The sad truth is also that parts capable of gaming come with a premium. If you're a little more flexible or willing to take a risk on a pre-owned product, you can always find something great.
Hitting the pages of eBay, you can find things like an Alienware X51 with a Core i7 processor and GTX 1050 Ti GPU for under $400.
Then there's the obvious one: Build your own PC. AMD's new Ryzen APUs, like the Ryzen 5 3400G, combining a processor and integrated Radeon graphics is a great shout for this type of budget gaming. You can get the Ryzen 5 3400G for just $150 (though it's currently extremely hard to get). Even accounting for buying a Windows 10 license, you could build yourself a budget gaming PC for $500 with one of these.
Cloud Gaming: Google Stadia and NVIDIA GeForce Now
It's now possible to game on PC without having a gaming PC at all. Thanks to the power of the cloud, you can play high-quality games at high frame rates simply by streaming them as you would a Netflix show.
Right now, the two best choices for gaming on PC are Google Stadia and NVIDIA GeForce Now. Both are different in their approach but deliver an excellent experience. And all you really need is a web browser (though GeForce Now does have a Windows desktop app).
Google Stadia is a more traditional experience in that Stadia is the "console," and you buy games to play on it. If you subscribe to Stadia Pro, you'll get regular games to play, for free, just as you might on PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. Both controller and keyboard and mouse are supported, and while Stadia has it's own controller, others are supported.
Stadia Premiere Edition
NVIDIA GeForce Now, by contrast, is a gateway to play PC games you already own through stores like Steam, Epic, and Ubisoft. It's not all of your games, but the service gets weekly updates, and Epic's weekly free games are also added, so you can literally always get new games to play without paying.
The service has a free tier, albeit with limitations, but the Founders subscription is very reasonable and adds in bonus features like NVIDIA's RTX ray tracing technology.
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Richard Devine is a Managing Editor at Windows Central with over a decade of experience. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently, you'll find him steering the site's coverage of all manner of PC hardware and reviews. Find him on Mastodon at mstdn.social/@richdevine