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Why upgrading a budget PC yourself might not be worth it

Motherboard
Motherboard

Building your own PC can be a rewarding, money-saving experience, but not everyone has the time or feels comfortable enough to do it themselves. Major PC manufacturers understand, and most have a lineup of pre-built desktop devices ranging from budget productivity machines worth a few hundred dollars to extreme gaming rigs that cost thousands.

One possible route to take when PC shopping is buying a budget pre-built now with plans of upgrading yourself in the near future. It doesn't seem quite as complicated as starting from scratch, and besides, you'll have a device that powers on today rather than in a few weeks when all the parts arrive and you've assembled them properly.

The short game vs. the long game

/how-build-pc-ultimate-step-step-guide

Buying budget now — I'm talking a device that sits around the $500 mark — with plans to upgrade slowly over the next year or so can be considered the short game. You're getting a pre-built PC that works as soon as you open the box, but it's not going to have the same power as something in the $750 or $1,000 range.

Playing the long game, on the other hand, either means you're saving up a bit longer for a mid-range or high-end pre-built PC, or you're going to wait for separate parts to go on sale and build something yourself. If you're holding out on building your own device from scratch because of a lack of confidence, remember that you're going to be tinkering inside anyway when you decide to upgrade your budget rig. Would you rather pop open a PC and guess which cables go where, or would you like to know it from the ground up? The ease of PC building has come a long way, especially when you take advantage of our step-by-step guide.

How to build a PC: The ultimate step-by-step guide

Still, many don't have the time to get into this (consuming) hobby. If you're looking to buy budget and upgrade, there are some things to keep in mind.

The budget PC's components

Intel Socket

While budget PCs will usually offer up at least a semi-recent processor (CPU) that should serve you well for a few years to come (one of my PCs is still using a second-gen Core i7), you're likely going to be getting a low amount of DDR3 RAM, a slow hard-disk drive (HDD), and no option for discrete graphics.

Using DDR3 RAM instead of DDR4 isn't that big of a deal when it comes to performance, but adding extra RAM might pose a problem. You want to be sure that the PC can handle the amount of RAM you're thinking about adding.

Seagate Barracuda (Image credit: Windows Central)

The performance of an HDD can be quite noticeable, especially if you're already used to using a solid-state drive (SSD). HDDs help keep the initial price down while offering up an attractive amount of storage, but this is one of the parts that is most commonly upgraded. When buying budget with plans to upgrade later, you can safely earmark a couple hundred for an SSD.

Finally, if you're interested in turning a budget PC into a gaming rig, you'll eventually be buying a dedicated graphics card (GPU). Not only does the motherboard need to have an appropriate PCIe hub, you also need to have enough RAM and a decent enough CPU to not cause bottlenecks. There's no point in putting a GTX 1080 GPU into a PC with a Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM.

The budget PC compatibility dilemma

Say you're interested in putting a big new GPU into your PC. This might also require you to upgrade your CPU, as it's going to cause a bottleneck. Since buying the budget PC with an aging Intel CPU, there's a brand new AMD CPU that you have your eye on.

Here's the problem: a lot of different CPUs use different chipsets, and they aren't compatible with each other. If your motherboard is using a certain chipset, you're stuck buying a certain type of CPU. Now, this doesn't mean you can't find something good in that chipset, but this problem can snowball quickly.

That GPU is going to need more power, and the stock power supply unit (PSU) isn't up to the task. Likewise, the new motherboard doesn't support the RAM you have, so that's also been added to your list. Worst case, you'll throw up your hands in frustration and scrap the entire upgrade plan.

The budget PC case dilemma

Alienware X51 R2

PCs generally come in a few standardized case sizes that make it easier to pick compatible parts. While shopping for budget PCs, it's evident that a few come in non-standard case sizes, which can pose serious problems down the line.

GPUs seem to keep getting bigger, and while there are certainly compact options, the big one you have your eye on might not fit in that slim-profile case. You could transplant the entire PC into a bigger case, but that's assuming the motherboard doesn't have something proprietarily funky going on that keeps you from doing so.

If you plan on keeping upgrades to a minimum, this isn't nearly as big of a problem, but again things can get out of hand quickly if you plan on turning the PC into a beefy gaming rig.

Is it worth upgrading a budget PC?

Corsair Vengeance RAM (Image credit: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Buying budget now with concrete plans for some minor upgrades down the line isn't that bad of an idea. As long as you make sure there's room for the RAM you want and the new CPU you have your eye on is compatible with the chipset, you should be good to go. You might have an issue with the PSU, but that's far more likely if you're thinking of adding a dedicated GPU.

On that note, buying budget with concrete plans to turn it into a gaming PC won't work out as well. Upgrading just one part might turn into upgrading all parts, and in that case, you'll be wishing you'd just started from scratch to begin with.

My suggestion for would-be PC gamers that prefer a pre-built? Save up a bit longer and invest in something mid-range that won't require as many upgrades. You could also put that money into buying better parts separately, use our guides to build something yourself, and hit the power button for the first time and bask in the sweet hum of a PC you built booting for the first time.

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Cale Hunt
Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

12 Comments
  • I always self build from scratch. Really frustrated at the moment as I've just spent over £1k on some new kit and found that one of the memory slots doesn't work. Asus X99 board, intel 6850k, Samsung 960 Pro and 32GB of Crucial Elite RAM. Hopefully it will be up and working next week but it's so disappointing to have a lot of expensive kit sat doing nothing
  • Been caught out like that a couple of times in the past with bits not working that you can't 'see' until the mobo is populated and you try to fire it up.
    Annoying...
    I'm considering one of the Scan bundles, bit pricier but they assemble and test before shipping.
  • I'd rather go the route of picking stuff up directly from Scan or Novatech (depending which end of the country I'm at), test it myself, then exchange any item that isn't working directly in-store. Sending back duff items is a real chore. I may pick up some minor components via the post but I've always bought the key items face to face. No waiting, and someone to help when things don't work.
  • I've been gaming on budget PCs for the last 20 years. I'me a total bottom feeder. I buy old games cheap games that run on old cheap hardware. Very rarely have I run into a speed issue that wasn't solved with a newer, cheap video card. If you don't care about maxing out graphics or riding the bleeding edge, you'll do fine. You might have to wait longer at loading, the frame rate might not be the best, but  you can play and have fun. 
  • You can, when younger I did just that. However, I got most of my stuff 2nd hand from mates for free. Seriously, just think how many old bits each system builder has in the cupboard they'll never use. Heck, I could build you a system with what I have now if you could find a case to put it in. Recycle your tech folks, don't just fill the cupboard, give it away.
  • No mention of the PSU, that should probably be the first upgrade if you're going to do this. In budget PCs the PSU is often just barely capable of running the system under load.
  • You should probably read again, this time slower.
  • I'm not going to do that, but ctrl+f shows that it is touched on and I missed it, my mistake. I still think it needs more emphasis though.
  • Well, it all boils down to one thing, money. No matter what you want, money is the most constricting factor. If you've got oodles of money, throw in the best mobo, cpu and GPU and you can have a huge powerhouse. If You're on a budget, you need to start making choices. I'm on my own built i5 4430, Z97 Sli mobo with a GTX 550ti and That's likely to stay that way for quite a while
  • I'm on this dilemma right now. I have my eyes on this tower https://www.windowscentral.com/e?link=https%3A%2F%2Fshop-links.co%2Flink... with the intention of buying a decent video card later in the year. What do you guys think?
  • i tried upgrade a budget Dell PC and ended up doing one from scratch because the audio/video ports was custom built onto the mother board. i really wanted to keep the case but it wasnt meant to be so i built one from scratch and i happier that i did
  • My current rig is a Core-i7 on a x97? mobo with 16gb of ddr3 9-9-9-22 ram & r9 480 gpu. With intel cpu performance increment lessening YoY, the best bet is to buy an older cpu/mobo and spend on the gpu. Ssd is also important. The only thing I miss out with a newer mobo is a higher bandwidth m.2 slot but i could get a pcie ssd if i want though it's more ex and that's assuming my mobo can boot from it. This system has been upgraded over 10 years from a Core i5 first gen with amd hd4000 gpu to current. Each new game i play usually only need an upgrade to gpu. I spend 1-2 hundred $ every 2 years to key it up to date.