$100 gaming PC? Not easy but possible

If you want a gaming PC but have a super-tight budget, a $100 gaming PC isn’t ideal and isn’t easy. But it’s possible to put together a PC for gaming on a budget that small. You can even leave some room for improvement for upgrades as your budget permits later on, which I recommend.

First, I’ll assume you’re looking to do something reasonably current. Building a vintage gaming PC is a different topic. Second, you’ll have to accept that you’re not going to play top-tier titles at full detail and resolution on something this cheap. E-sports and RPG-type games and Minecraft will probably play fine, and titles a few years old will probably play fine. You’ll have to drop the detail level, but most of them will work.

Start with a used computer

$100 gaming PC
Try to get something newer than this one, but a Dell Optiplex from 2009 or newer makes a good basis for a $100 gaming PC. The minitower form factor like this PC gives you more options than a small form factor model.

To start, you need a used computer. A lot of people like to start with a Dell, HP or Lenovo business PC as a starting point because they’re inexpensive, parts are readily available, and they’re dependable. With some luck, you can get an i3- or i5-based PC for around $65 on Ebay. Click the link, then click Buy it Now, then sort by lowest price. Scroll down a bit to get past the dreck like faceplates and CMOS batteries and see what you can find. I specifically recommend Dell Optiplex models because certain HP and Lenovo models have trouble with anything better than a $35 video card.

I like HP and Lenovo business PCs. I’m typing this on an HP, in fact. If you find a deal and you’re willing to do some research you can certainly use one of their machines as a basis for a $100 gaming PC. But I happen to know an Optiplex is a reasonably safe platform to build on. Especially at this price point, it’s much cheaper to buy than to try to build a PC.

Caveats with a $100 gaming PC

At this price level there are tons of caveats. First, make sure the computer is complete. Sometimes you’ll find a crazy low price on an old hulk because there’s no hard drive or RAM in it. Second, make sure it works. If the listing says parts only, make sure you have both the skills to fix it and the budget to replace whatever parts are bad. Third, you’ll find a number of small form factor machines. That means they take half-height cards, which will limit the video card you can put in them. Computers in a minitower case that can take full-height cards often go for more money, because they have better upgrade options. Pro tip: Look for a computer in a case that’s wide enough that the DVD drive could fit in the short direction. If the DVD drive can’t fit in the short direction, it’s a small form factor machine.

You might also consider a Core 2 quad-based machine. These are a generation older, but have four cores. The additional cores are useful for gaming.

If you’re on a super-strict budget, the biggest bargains are in the small form factor machines. That’s because their small size limits you to half-height video cards. Just be ready to live within their limitations.

If you can’t find something that fits your budget with a buy-it-now, take a look at the auctions. Sometimes these machines go for a bit less at auction if you have the patience for that.

Craigslist

The first thing most people think of when looking for bargains is Craigslist. Finding any kind of a PC for under $100 is tough, though. At least in my area, the prices make me think people are buying PCs off Ebay for $65 and trying to flip them for $100.

But I may have a couple of aces in the hole for you.

An unsung option for a bargain PC

Here’s an off-the-beaten path option for a bargain PC: Estate sales. Never been? Picture a whole-house garage sale. Pay a visit to estatesales.net and see what’s going on around you this weekend. Computers tend to be slow sellers at estate sales, and the people who run them typically aren’t computer experts. They don’t know the difference between various generations of chips, so they’re likely to price any computer they find at whatever price they’ve had success selling them in the past. Chances are you’ll be able to find something for $75. So make it decent.

With some luck you may be able to get a generic PC in a standard case. These are ideal because everything’s replaceable and you have a wide variety of options. But the main thing is to find a decent CPU from this decade, and a PCIe slot for a video card. It’s better still if the system already has a PCIe video card in it. A lot has to go right to find all that, but it’s not impossible.

Click on any sales near you, and look for computer gear in the pictures. Research what you find. Don’t expect to see prices in any pics, but if you see anything that seems like it has a decent CPU in it and a PCIe slot for a video card, head to the sale on Saturday.

If you’re feeling really lucky, hit the estate sales on Sunday. Sundays are usually half-price day, so if that $75 computer is still there, it’s $37.50 on Sunday. That leaves you more money for upgrades if the computer is any good at all.

PC recycler/surplus sales

Do a Google search for PC surplus sales in your area. The recycler near me sells off-lease business desktops starting at around $37. Maybe that’s where the local Craigslist resellers get their gear. What you get for less than $40 usually won’t be great, but it leaves you some budget for a better video card. In a strict $100 gaming PC, the video card is usually the bottleneck, so being able to put more toward the video card really helps.

Checking out a PC in-person

If the PC is set up, pull up system information (click the Windows logo and type system information, then select it from the results) and see what it’s got. Make sure it has a fairly recent CPU. A Core 2 is probably too old. Make sure it has at least 4 GB of RAM. More is better. Pull up Device Manager (click the Windows logo and type device manager, then select it from the results) and scroll down to Display Adapters and open it up. Punch the name of the video card you find into your phone and find out if it’s decent.

If the computer has a decent CPU in it and you can work with or upgrade the video card, buy it. It also helps to ask what’s included. Sometimes they sell the whole thing together, including the monitor. Sometimes they piecemeal it. And when they piecemeal it, they often ask too much for things like the keyboard and mouse. Don’t overpay for those things. We’ll talk about keyboards and mice and monitors in a bit.

Upgrading the video card

$100 gaming PC - small form factor
This is a small form factor Dell Optiplex PC. It’s new enough to have potential as a gaming PC. A minitower in the style of this case (or similar) makes an ideal basis for a $100 gaming PC. If the SFF version is all you can get, you can pair it with a used $30 Radeon 8570 (be sure to get the low-profile version) and still stay under the $100 mark.

The most critical part for gaming is the video card. And you probably only have about $35 left to spend on one. So the question is whether a $35 video card is better than what you already have. If you’re able to set the computer up, pull up Device Manager (click the Windows logo and type device manager, then select it from the results) and scroll down to Display Adapters and open it up. Research what you have. If not, pop the case, and find the video card, assuming it’s not integrated on the motherboard.

Do a Google search to see if your card is better or worse than a Geforce GT 710, which is presently the best $35 video card out there. The GT 730 is a $50 card that’s better. Both are low-profile cards so they’ll fit in the slim desktops you find on Ebay. An estate sale bargain may take a better card if it’s in a bigger case.

At any rate, search on something like Radeon HD 5450 vs Geforce GT 710 and see what you find out. The site gpu.userbenchmark.com will even let you benchmark what you have presently against other components so you can see if the 710 will be an improvement.

New and new-ish cards

Your best choices for video cards are, in order:

All of these are available in versions small enough that they can fit in a low-profile slot and have low enough power requirements that any PC of this vintage can handle them. The 710 is only good for very casual gaming; it’s a slight upgrade from the onboard video the system already has. The 730 is better if you can afford it. The 1030 is the most popular gaming card for repurposing old office PCs, but since it’s fast enough for mining cryptocurrency, prices are high right now. It can be difficult to get a 1030-based card for much less than $100.

If you have a hard limit of $100 on your $100 gaming PC, get a 710 or 730, or a used card (more on that in a minute). If you can stretch your budget a bit, get a 1030. Keep the packaging and everything that comes with the card so that you can sell it to help finance an upgrade to a 1030 at a later date.

Most critically, all of these types of cards will come with DVI outputs, so you can connect them to a TV if you don’t have a dedicated monitor.

If you score a minitower PC, research whether an AMD RX 460 or Nvidia GTX 1050 will work in it. These cards are a bit more expensive than a 1030 but also provide a bit better performance.

Used video cards

It’s possible to find used video cards, but finding cards that will fit and meet the power requirements of a sub-$100 PC is difficult. Most of what you’ll find that will outperform a GT 730 will consume considerably more power, and it can be difficult to find them for any less than you’d pay for a comparable low-end GT-based card of today. The best bet I’ve been able to find is a Radeon 8570, which you can find in a low-profile version, uses 50 watts of power and frequently sells for around $30. A $65 low-profile office PC with an 8570 isn’t a great gaming rig, but it’ll play some games, making it a reasonable formula for a $100 gaming PC if you have a hard limit to your budget.

Here are some cards you can look for if you managed to score something other than a cast-off office PC:

But I honestly think your better bet would be to buy a GT 710 to hold you over until you can afford a GT 1030, then flip the GT 710 to help finance it. If you keep the box and everything that comes with the card, you’ll probably be able to resell the GT 710 for $25 or even $30 since it’s a good card for turning a low-profile PC into a home theater PC, or giving an old PC newer, better video outputs. It has appeal beyond budget gamers.

Keyboards, mice, and monitors

If you don’t have an extra keyboard or mouse, thrift stores usually sell them for $5 or less. Cheap USB keyboards are scarcer on Ebay than I expected, but available. It’s very easy to find a USB mouse, just make sure you find a US seller (or a seller in your local country) to avoid multi-week shipping times.

Thrift stores often have decent monitors for $10-$20. They’ll be on the small side, and probably 1600×900, but they’ll work.

If you buy your base PC from a local PC surplus dealer, they’ll probably have plenty of keyboards, mice, and monitors. I would expect prices to be reasonable.

Storage

If you luck out and get a system cheaply enough to have room in your $100 gaming PC budget, consider replacing the hard drive. A newer hard drive will really pep up performance. An SSD is even better, but a 120 GB SSD costs $40 and doesn’t leave a lot of space for your games. You may be better off revisiting storage at a later date but here are some tips for when you do.

Memory

A lot of sub-$100 PCs come with 4 GB of RAM. That’s usually adequate, but 8 GB is better. Consider coming back around and adding some memory when you can afford to do it. Brand matters, and memory prices fluctuate, so here are some memory buying secrets.

How much do you need? That depends, but I’ll be honest. I do own a PC with 32 GB of RAM, but the one I use most often has 8 GB.

Operating system

You can install Linux for free and install Steam if you want, but that’s probably not what you had in mind. If you’re lucky, the PC you get still has a Windows COA sticker with a license key on it. If it doesn’t, the cheapest way to get Windows is to buy a scrap Windows COA off Ebay. It’s definitely gray market, but given that the PC was sold with Windows, it’s hard to argue you’re doing anything immoral. Windows 10 will install off a Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 activation key.

Even if your PC has a working Windows installation on it, I strongly recommend you download a fresh copy of Windows 10 and reinstall it. Your $100 gaming PC will run much faster with a new, fresh Windows installation, and then you know you don’t have any viruses or spyware on it.

$100 gaming PC: In conclusion

It’s certainly not easy to put together a $100 gaming PC. You’ll find stories online sometimes of people putting together unbelievable machines for that kind of budget. What they don’t tell you is that it probably took them several months, if not longer, to score each individual deal that went into that PC.

If you have a ton of patience, you can put lowball bids on Ebay auctions and wait to win everything at half price. But even with average patience and average luck, you can build yourself a $100 gaming PC that has room to upgrade in a few months when you have budget to do it. By the time you come back and add some RAM, an SSD, and a better video card, you have more like a $250 gaming PC. But it will provide you enjoyment for a good 2-3 years, if not longer, and when you can afford something better, you won’t have much trouble reselling it.

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