In the recent past, we have put out buyers guides covering the midrange and high-end markets. Those are definitely easier to put together, as right now is a great time to purchase a midrange or faster computer - or at least, it's as good of the time as you're likely to see, what with the continuous release of newer products as time rolls on. One subject that we haven't looked at in several months is the budget sector, and quite a few of you have asked for advice on what to purchase. Many others have also pointed out the rising costs of memory, making it even more difficult to put together a reasonably priced computer. We hope to be able to shed some light on the topic in this buyer's guide, although the best we can do is to grit our teeth and simply recommend spending a bit more money than you would like.

Our buyer's guides are focused on putting together a complete system that fits the target market segment. We've already covered midrange ($1000-$1500) and high-end ($2000+) configurations, but unfortunately for many of us the pocketbook is going to have a far greater impact on our component choices than we would like. Today, we will tackle the budget sector, with the goal of keeping prices to around $1000 on the upgraded configurations, and getting as close as possible to $500 on the base systems. Needless to say, without making some serious compromises it is currently impossible to build a new complete computer system for $500, and we are not willing to make those compromises. Our maximum upgrade will also span the upper-budget and lower-midrange price segment, but individualization is the key: get the upgraded parts that you find useful, and don't bother with those you don't feel you need.

Especially at the budget end of the spectrum, it becomes reasonable to consider prebuilt solutions available at your local computer stores or from the larger OEMs. A quick look at Dell for instance shows that desktop systems starting at a mere $330 are available, which is quite a bit cheaper than what we will recommend today. If that seems too good to be true, sadly it is. The bare minimum system doesn't include a monitor, and it cuts down virtually every component choice possible. 512MB of RAM, a CD-RW optical drive, 80GB hard drive, integrated graphics, and the cheapest processors available (Sempron or Celeron in this case) allow them to reach their bargain basement price. By the time you make some reasonable upgrades like adding a monitor, 2x512MB of RAM, a faster CPU, and a DVD burner suddenly the price is right up there with the system configurations we will put together.

A few final points about OEM systems. You still get a lower price on the software, although that also means you get a bunch of software that you might not want. You also get a single warranty and support contact for the first year. Overclocking typically won't be an optionm though the need for it at this price point is debatable. The slightly upgraded budget OEM configurations really are worth a look, as they can save over $100 all told. Does that mean you should or shouldn't purchase an OEM system? As usual, there is no one answer that will fit every person and many will be more than satisfied with your typical budget OEM configurations. We feel that our buyer's guides offer better expandability, performance, customization, and features at roughly the same price, with the only potential drawback being that you have to know how to put together the system yourself.

We changed the format of our buyer's guides last time to focus on the overall system packages rather than going through each individual component. This allows us to be a bit more concise and avoid repeating the same things every other week - after all, how much can you really say about a hard drive? We will continue that trend with this guide as well, looking at the basic platform choices first and then moving on to accessories like the case, power supply, input devices, and display. For the most part, you should be able to mix and match components as you see fit, and certainly we will not be able to cover every single possibility. GPUs and motherboards that use the same chipsets will typically perform the same, with price, features, and overclocking potential being the differentiating factors. Overclocking is certainly a possibility within the budget price segment, although you will usually get much better results if you upgrade some of the parts, particularly the motherboard and RAM. We won't focus too heavily on overclocking in this guide, other than to mention typical estimates of what can be achieved.

With that out of the way, we will start with the base AMD recommendations, followed by the base Intel recommendations. We will then move on to the upgraded configurations before wrapping up with coverage of the accessories.

Baseline AMD Budget Platform
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  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 30, 2006 - link

    To some, yes. To someone else, $15-$20 is the difference between IGP and X1300/7300, or Athlon 3000+ and X2 3600+, or 320GB and 160GB HDD, or a better motherboard, or....

    You get the point. I still strongly believe that most people who grip on power supplies as being low-quality are trying to use them with higher end systems. As soon as someone starts to upgrade from the basic budget builds, yes I would definitely recommend going with a better power supply. However, when you are trying to save as much money as possible, $20 is a pretty significant upgrade on every single component.

    Personally, I don't like building budget computers, because $10-$25 above "budget" in every category will get you a MUCH better computer. Yes, it ends up costing $200 more, but if anyone asks me for advice on a budget computer that's what I'm going to recommend (within reason). The "upgraded build" more or less represents what I would truly recommend, with the caveat that I would not recommend every single upgrade for every person. I really feel $750 is the best price point for a "budget" system. Unfortunately, when I get a few budget buyers guides targeting that I got complaints from people that wanted to stay closer to $500. You can't please everyone, so I figure a spread from $500-$1000 is pretty reasonable. I like to think that most people are capable of extrapolating the recommendations a bit and realizing that there are literally hundreds of computer parts worth considering. Which ones are best is going to be a matter of pricing, availability, support, and performance. Without trying to write 20,000 word buyers guides, I'm quite sure that I can cover every single aspect of what you should or shouldn't put into a system.

    I still think a lot of people are way too concerned about power supply quality when looking at budget (~$500) computers. There's a reason those types of power supplies get put in cheap OEM systems: they're good enough for budget computers running budget tasks. Ripple current? When was the last time ripple current affected a $500 computer? How can you even tell? It's more like voodoo mumbo-jumbo than concrete evidence of what will happen. LOL!
  • Frumious1 - Friday, October 27, 2006 - link

    You're not a power supply snob? You damn well could have fooled me! I think Jarred is beating around the bush and trying to be nice so I'm going to cut right through the crap and tell you how it is.

    There are a bunch of elitist enthusiasts out there that think every computer on the planet needs high-end components. Oh sure, you can skimp a bit on the memory, motherboard, CPU, and graphics card, but OMG you had damn well better not use a generic brand power supply! These "experts" have all sorts of experience replacing bad hardware. Amazingly, they never get calls from people wanting to replace good hardware.

    Of course, the people that buy really good hardware almost never have to call someone to replace any parts that fail in the first place! I can tell you how many times I've gone to the local computer store with my broken PC and asked for help: NONE! Not a single fucking time! You know why? Because I am capable of diagnosing and replacing my hardware without anyone's help. Just like a lot of you.

    The people who call up a friend or an expert to come and fix their computer are not capable of doing it themselves. These people are the same people that usually by OEM systems, or if they do get a "custom" system they almost never buy anything that's truly considered high-quality. I've had Enermax PSUs fail on me, quite a few Antec PSUs, and over the years many "generic" PSUs.

    Because I've had more generic PSUs that have failed, I could quickly reach the conclusion that they are lower quality. The only problem is that I have built far more systems with generic PSUs. If I look at all of the power supplies I've used, very few of them last more than five years... or at least, after five years I'm ready get rid of the case, power supply, and everything else. In terms of failure rates, I would say about 20% have problems with the power supply in the first three years of life, but less than 5% have problems within the first year. And those figures really seem to have little to do with who makes the power supply. Okay, maybe if I went out and bought only expensive power supplies, my first-year failure rate would be even lower. Given monetary savings that come with cheap power supplies and cases, though, I'm more than willing to deal with a 5% failure rate. Sort of like Dell and HP I bet.

    So let me wrap this up with a concrete story. When Rosewill first came onto the scene as a brand... 18 months ago? Two years ago?... I was curious. I ended up building four systems using Rosewill cases. I probably left a little bit of blood/skin on every single one of those cases, but such is the price of using a budget case. It's the Rosewill TU-153 with 400W PSU, if you're wondering. I have a Pentium D 805 system running in one of those cases, using a Biostar TForce motherboard, and the CPU is even overclocked to 3.4 GHz. I have another one of those with an Athlon X2 3800+, overclocked to 2.5 GHz. Then I built two more computers (one Athlon 64 3000+ and one Sempron 2800+) for a couple people I know.

    All four systems are over a year old now, and no one has called to complain about instabilities or crashes, and my two dual core systems haven't had any problems either. My one complaint is that none of the systems are really quiet. The cases are also pretty flimsy, at least compared to some of the nicer cases out there. The one thing I need to make clear is that not one of these computers has anything faster than a GeForce 6600 GT graphics card, because none of them are being used for gaming. Case closed.
  • guyvia - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    I do appreciate Linux being mentioned in the article, but there are a few missed considerations / mistakes in the article.

    1. 'W'INE 'I's 'N'ot an 'E'mulator. It is a compatability layer.
    2. Keyboards can be funny in Linux, and the more fancy buttons and scroll wheels you have, the more likely you are going to have to run extra software to make them work.
    3. Using an existing home theatre may not be a great choice for your speakers, considering many onboard sound cards get squirrley with the coax / optical outs when run under ALSA.
  • bzo - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    FYI - Linux users interesteed in the M2NPV: This boards will not boot up recent 2.6 kernels without some hacks. Apparently, there is a bad ACPI table in the BIOS - at least that's what an Nvidia developer has posted. A google on M2NPV and linux will show plenty of references to this problem.
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Actually, since we're nickpicking . . .

    'Wine is an Open Source implementation of the Windows API on top of X and Unix.'

    'Think of Wine as a compatibility layer for running Windows programs. Wine does not require Microsoft Windows, as it is a completely free alternative implementation of the Windows API consisting of 100% non-Microsoft code, however Wine can optionally use native Windows DLLs if they are available. Wine provides both a development toolkit for porting Windows source code to Unix as well as a program loader, allowing many unmodified Windows programs to run on x86-based Unixes, including Linux, FreeBSD, Mac OS X, and Solaris.

    More information can be read in the articles Why Wine is so important, and Debunking Wine Myths. If you are wondering how well a particular application works in Wine, please examine the Applications Database. For installation instructions and step-by-step help with running Wine, take a look at the User Guide.

    Wine is free software. The licensing terms are the GNU Lesser General Public License.'">
  • kmmatney - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    "but we definitely wouldn't recommend purchasing and new socket 939 system unless you can get it for less money than the equivalent AM2 setup."

    I'm very happy with my $99 socket 939 + Athlon 3400+ combo from NewEgg. The processor overclocked to 2.6 Ghz with cheapo RAM. The $60 saved could get a better class of video card. In my case, it was an upgrade, rather than a new system, and I kept my video card and RAM.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Upgrades are of course in a different category, but you also have to take into account the cost. If you *can* get a 939 configuration for less money than an AM2 config - and I'm not talking $5-$10 less, but more like $50+ less - then it's certainly worth a thought, especially for lower budget purchases. Heck, I'm very happy with my Athlon X2 4600+ setup which is also a 939 system. Determing when and where to upgrade is a very different subject from building an entirely new PC.
  • CrazyBernie - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link">;Manufa...

    AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ 2.4GHz Socket AM2 Processor Model ADA3800CWBOX - Retail

    For $115.99 !!!
  • CrazyBernie - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Bah.... they made a typo... it's a non-X2... nevermind.
  • erple2 - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    On page 2, the second to last paragraph, the second sentence, starts "Dual channel performance might be up to ..." Should that read "Single channel performance might be up to ..."?

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