Baseline AMD Budget Platform

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that we had to go with a single core processor and integrated graphics in order to come anywhere near our $500 price target. We still overshot the budget by $150, but we certainly haven't eliminated every potential downgrade. Here's the basic AMD configuration that we are actually comfortable recommending.

Budget AMD Athlon 64 AM2 System
Hardware Component Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 (AM2) 3000+ - 1.8GHz 512KB $74
Motherboard ASUS M2NPV-VM - NVIDIA GeForce 6150 AM2 $84
Memory A-DATA Vitesta 1GB (2 x 512MB)
DDR2-667 5-5-5-15
Hard Drive Hitachi Deskstar 7K160 160GB
SATA3.0Gbs 160GB 8MB 7200RPM
Optical Drive LiteOn SHW160P6S05 16X DVD+/-RW $29
System Total $368
Complete Package $654 - $926

Our processor choice goes to the AMD Athlon 64 3000+, which is currently priced at $74. The Athlon 64 3000+ has been a favorite of overclockers ever since it first came onto the scene just over two years ago. In terms of performance, not much has really changed with the move from socket 939 to socket AM2. It still comes with a 1.8GHz clock speed and 512K of cache, and with the right overclocking equipment you should be able to reach at least 2.6GHz and often more. Both platforms are at a mature state, even though socket AM2 is only a few months old. AM2 should also support quite a few future processor upgrades if that's important to you, and it will typically perform slightly better than an equivalent socket 939 configuration. If you already have a socket 939 system, there really isn't any need to upgrade to socket AM2 right now, but we definitely wouldn't recommend purchasing a new socket 939 system unless you can get it for less money than the equivalent AM2 setup.

We could have chosen to downgrade the CPU to a Sempron model, although it's important to keep in mind the fact that model numbers do not represent identical clock speeds between the Athlon and Sempron families. The Athlon 64 3000+ has a 1.8GHz clock speed, while the Sempron 3400+ has the same clock speed and half the L2 cache. The Sempron 3400+ is about $10 cheaper, but our experience is that it usually won't overclock as far as the Athlon 64 and the L2 cache is important enough that we felt the extra $10 was warranted. If you are really interested in saving money, the best bet would be to downgrade to the Sempron 2800+, which comes with a 1.6GHz clock speed and 128K of cache. If all you are looking for is a system capable of surfing the web and doing office work, such a computer would still be sufficient and you could even get down to the $500 price point with a bit of work. On the other hand, multiple processing cores are the talk of the town these days, so if you'd like more performance than the single core Athlon 64 offers, take a look at our upgraded configurations.

Moving to the motherboard, there are definitely cheaper alternatives available, but we have had far better luck with ATI and NVIDIA integrated graphics than the solutions offered from VIA or SiS. The nForce 6100 chipset supports the full DirectX 9 feature set, although performance will still be less than just about any DX9 discrete graphics adapter. The nForce 6150 sports higher clock speeds that help to improve performance slightly, but that's not the reason we went with the upgrade. The primary factor in our choice of the ASUS 6150 motherboard over something like the Biostar TForce 6100 is ASUS' inclusion of a DVI output. As we have stated many times in the past, we're done recommending CRTs, and if we're going to recommend an LCD it is going to include a DVI port. That's one less digital to analog conversion that has to take place, resulting in a slightly better image. The ASUS M2NPV-VM offers limited overclocking support, and while it should be enough to get you a ~10% overclock, that's certainly not the focus of the board. With true budget platforms, overclocking isn't high on our list of priorities either. If you're willing to spend a bit more money for overclocking capabilities, the Abit NF-M2 is very similar in features (including the DVI port) and costs about $10 more, but in general overclockers will be better served by fullsize ATX boards with discrete graphics.

ATI Xpress 1100 might have been a reasonable alternative, but we were unable to find any motherboards using that chipset that included a DVI port. If you don't care at all about overclocking, DVI, or integrated graphics performance, you should be able to get just about any of the current AM2 motherboards using an ATI or NVIDIA chipset. You should also be able to shave up to $30 off the price of the motherboard. However, motherboards are such a critical component that we have to strongly caution against trying to cut costs too much, as often that will result in a somewhat flaky system and/or component incompatibilities.

The one area of our base configuration that is likely to cause the most debate is our choice of memory. DDR2 memory is anything but cheap these days - and DDR memory is no better - with prices that have gone up sometimes 100% over the past several months. The current prices are likely to last at least another month or two, although thankfully they are no longer on the rise. The shortage appears to have been caused by the impending holiday season with many of the major OEMs purchasing large quantities of memory in advance. Whatever the cause, however, the end result remains the same: high prices that we are none too happy with. If you're trying to keep costs down, it might be tempting to consider purchasing only 512MB of memory, and it is definitely an option. Depending on how you intend to use your computer, 512MB of memory may be sufficient. For most of us, it has quickly become the bare minimum we are willing to install on a new system, and looking towards the future it is going to be woefully inadequate for anyone planning on running Windows Vista next year. You can save about $60 by going with a single 512MB DIMM, but we're not going to recommend it.

Instead, we will grudgingly recommend spending more money on a 2x512MB configuration. We have selected the A-DATA Vitesta DDR2-667 memory, which we have found to be highly compatible in our testing, and it is also capable of overclocking a fair amount. Overclocking headroom isn't nearly as important on AM2, as the way memory speeds are derived from the CPU core speed means you can use "ratios" without degrading performance much. As with most DDR2-667 memory, increasing voltage up to around 2.1V should allow you to reach the maximum timings and bandwidth the modules are capable of. Given the various bottlenecks that are likely to exist elsewhere within our base AMD configuration, it's probably best not to worry about it too much and just stick with the default or slightly tweaked performance.

One final memory option worth considering is getting a single 1GB DIMM instead of 2x512MB. Single channel performance might be up to 5% or even 10% slower depending on what task you're doing (typically it's around 2-3% slower), but going with a single 1GB DIMM allows you to add more memory in the future if/when it becomes necessary. This particular ASUS motherboards still has four DIMM slots, so it's not as big of a concern, but if you get one of the other motherboards that only includes two DIMM slots we would strongly recommend going with 1GB memory modules.

We will take a closer look at the remaining components on the budget Intel platform.

Index Baseline Intel 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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