The Cheapest Fully Functional PC Money Can Buy

I get five or so requests a week from people who want a PC at home that they can surf the web and check email from. Most of them don’t want to do anything much more complicated than watching YouTube videos. I usually give them all the same recipe for doing this on the cheap, and thus I thought it’d be worthwhile to present it to all of my readers.

If you want this kind of system, here’s how you can get it for usually less than $100.

Step 1: Get the Basic Hardware You’ll Need
Start off by hitting the yard sales and your social network for the basic pieces. What you’re looking for are the basic components of an old PC. You’ll need a monitor, the computer box itself (which should include a CD drive or – preferably – a drive that can read DVDs, too), a keyboard, a mouse, and perhaps some speakers. Many people upgrade their computers on a regular basis, tossing out old monitors that still work or other peripherals they don’t need, so just ask around.

You won’t need much of a computer at all – anything above 1 gigahertz or with more than 384 megabytes of memory will do. I purchased a computer seven years ago with substantially more hardware than that, so it should be easy to find without much expense at all.

Don’t know much about computer specifics? Your best bet is to simply get ahold of the person you know with the most computer knowledge and tell them that you’re looking for the pieces for a very low-end PC.

If you feel more comfortable, you can simply check out or your local superstore and get the least expensive computer that they sell – this way, you can be sure the hardware is new, at least, though you’ll likely spend $200-400 in this case. Once you get it home, though, you should ignore the version of Windows that comes with it and continue below, because on a low-end system like that, Windows will run quite slowly – there is a better way.

This is the only part that will cost you any money at all. The remaining steps won’t cost you a dime.


Step 2: Get the Basic Software You’ll Need
Don’t just install Windows, as Windows will run extremely poorly on that old of a system (and it’s expensive, too). Instead, get a user-friendly version of Linux called Ubuntu. If you have a friend that can burn a few CDs for you, you can download it for free and have your friend make CDs of it. Otherwise, you can request that they mail you a CD of it for free. The free CD by mail takes quite a while, so you might want to get on it if you want to order one.

Don’t let the unknown make you fearful – Ubuntu is easy to use. I would happily install Ubuntu on the computer of even the biggest computer novice without much worry. In fact, Ubuntu is currently running on one of my computers here at home – the only desktop PC in our home is running Ubuntu, not Windows.

When you’ve put together that basic system (plugged the mouse, keyboard, monitor, and speakers into the central unit, then plugged the central unit and monitor into the wall), just put the CD into the CD drive, then power it up. The installation will walk you through the steps – easy as pie.

Remember, even if you have difficulty getting Ubuntu to work, you haven’t invested any money in it at all, so you can always back out and try using something else with no worries.

Once you’re going with it, there’s extensive online help that addresses just about every question you might possibly have on your home computer. You will probably also want to set things up to allow yourself to play restricted media, like DVDs, mp3 files, and so forth.

Step 3: Get the Other Software You’ll Need
Ubuntu comes with most of the software you need – Firefox for browsing the web, Thunderbird for email, and lots of other software packages. You may also be interested in getting OpenOffice (free word processing, spreadsheets, and so on) and KMyMoney (free money management software, like Quicken).

In fact, the sole reason I haven’t switched to Ubuntu myself is the lack of a good replacement for Adobe Photoshop. There are several applications which attempt to mimic it (and do a solid job), but I use Photoshop for so many purposes that until they release a Linux version, I’m going to be sticking with the Mac/PC world. For almost everyone else, this isn’t really an issue, but I thought I’d clarify my biggest reason for not jumping on board.

In short, if you just want a very basic home PC to check email and browse the web, this is the cheapest way to get one. You can get a fully-functional, visually appealing, and rather speedy home computer for just the cost of a handful of component parts – most of which you can find very cheaply if you hunt around and tap your social network a bit.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.