Ask yourself this question: How do you use your desktop computer? If the answer is to surf the web, read and write emails, keep up with social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), stream movies and TV shows, and do some casual gaming, then the Asus Chromebox M004U (Est. $180) might be for you.
Vendors have had a difficult time with the Chromebox concept in the past. The circa-2012 Samsung Series 3 Chromebox was a product before its time, and experts and users dismissed it as being under-featured and overpriced.
There are few such complaints regarding the Asus Chromebox M004U as evidenced by Editors' Choice awards at PCMag.com and ComputerShopper.com, plus generally solid reviews elsewhere. "The Asus Chromebox M004U is a great alternative to buying yet another cheap Windows desktop, and it's a steal for the price," says PCMag.com's Joel Santo Domingo. User reviews are solid as well, though there aren't a ton of them -- the biggest "issue" with the Asus Chromebox has been getting them into users' hands as demand is still running well ahead of supply at the time of this review.
There are some caveats with the Asus Chromebox M004U. If there are Windows programs you absolutely have to run for work or school, you won't be able to do that on this tiny desktop machine. It runs the Google Chrome operating system, which puts everything into a web-browser environment. There are work-similar apps that even play nicely with files and software from other vendors -- for example Google Docs instead of Microsoft Word -- but that's not the same thing. Chrome itself depends on a solid Internet connection -- less of an issue with a stay-at-home desktop computer than a go-anywhere Chromebook laptop (see our report on cheap laptops for more information on Chromebooks. Google has improved Chrome's offline usability, but it is still limited at best. Some of the shine of the Chromebox's low price is diminished when you realize that you'll need to add your own peripherals -- keyboard, mouse and monitor (regular or touch screen); Asus is offering a wireless keyboard/mouse combo, but any wireless or wired peripherals that will work with a standard PC will work with the Chromebox.
The M004U is the cheapest of the expected Asus Chromebox offerings, and the first available for sale. It features a dual-core Intel Celeron processor, integrated Intel graphics, 2 GB of memory and 16 GB of local storage. If this were a Windows system, such a configuration would be almost laughably underpowered, but it's not, and it's not. Instead, there's plenty of power for anything you are likely to do under Chrome -- assuming that you don't open up a ton of browser tabs at one time while streaming HD video -- and it's easy to add additional memory. The small solid-state drive is more of a limitation, but you can add an external hard drive or pop an SD memory card into the built-in reader if you don't want to use cloud storage; Google offers 100 GB of free storage for two years. Connectivity is extensive. It includes 4 USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port and a DisplayPort connector. Both Ethernet and Wi-Fi (dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n) connectivity is built in, as is Bluetooth support.
If you need more of a traditional desktop computer instead, the HP Pavilion 500 (Est. $500 and up) is a great choice. HP offers the Pavilion 500 in a myriad number of ever-changing configurations, and with AMD and Intel processors, but the HP Pavilion 500-200t (Est. $500) hits the sweet spot between price and performance. For $500 (or less, as discounts are often available) you get a 4th (latest) generation Intel Core i3 processor, 6 GB of memory, a 7,200 rpm 1 TB hard drive, a DVD burner and more. A keyboard and optical mouse are included in the price, but a monitor is not (HP offers them with this PC for as low as $100). Intel integrated graphics are standard, though you can upgrade that to a discrete graphics card (Est. $60 and up) if you prefer.
This is a traditional tower, so it's relatively easy to add upgrades as your needs change. Connectivity is ample and includes six USB ports (four are USB 3.0), a 7-in-1 memory card reader and an Ethernet port. Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) and Bluetooth wireless support are built in. There's no HDMI port in the base configuration (step up to discrete graphics for that), though you can hook up an HDTV to the HP Pavilion 500 via an HDMI to DVI adapter (not included).
Reviews are scant, but one professional reviewer loved the bang for the buck delivered by this tower computer. Performance is judged to be excellent, and no significant downsides are found. User feedback is also limited, but generally positive.
The Gateway DX4870 is similar. Gateway's current DX4870-UR3D (Est. $530 and up) will run you a bit more than the HP Pavilion 500-200t.Differences include a step up to a 4th generation Intel Core i5 processor, more memory (8 GB versus 6 GB) and an HDMI output. Unlike the HP Pavilion 500, this is a retail-only system and can't be altered when purchased, but it can be user upgraded afterwards.
This DX-series computer has been reviewed in various configurations, but the general conclusions have been the same -- the DX4870 is a solid choice for a computer buyer on a budget. A version with a 4th generation (Haswell) Core i3 processor and 6 GB of memory earns an Editors' Choice award from PCMag.com, as does an older model sporting a 3rd generation (Ivy Bridge) Core i3. User reviews of the DX4870-UR3D are solid, though pulled down a bit by complaints regarding Windows 8 and issues upgrading the machine post sale. Some reliability issues are also raised.
The cheapest Apple desktop computer -- the Mac mini (Est. $600 and up) is another consideration in this price range. We'll look at it in depth in our discussion of Apple desktop computers.