Since last November AnandTech has looked at most of the components in the various system configurations you might want to purchase. This included specialty guides for Core i7 Systems at the high-end and our most recent guide for the newest CPUs in the Phenom II System Guide. The one constant in the computer market is change, and generally new product introductions bring greater value to market segments affected by the new CPU - and those downstream from the announcement.

That is certainly the case with the new AMD Phenom II, which started a midrange price war. After the Phenom II launch Intel responded quickly with Core 2 price cuts, and AMD countered with price adjustments that placed the Phenom II processors at price points where they compete very well with similarly priced Intel Core 2 processors. AMD then filled out their 45nm Phenom II line with models that extended to the upper end of the entry market, which squeezed other models in both lineups and created further price adjustments.

Now that the dust has settled for a while it is time to take another look at the entry-level computer systems. Low-end PCs have a reputation for being sub-standard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. That certainly was true in the past, but with the continuing drop in component prices, you can get a lot of PC today for your $300 to $800. About a year ago it would cost you about $700 to $750 to put together an entry system. Today you can build a similar but more powerful system for about $200 to $400 less.

We last looked at entry systems in late December with our buyers' guide for PCs under $1000. At that point prices had dropped to the point that $1000 was starting to look more midrange than entry, which is why that guide focused on cost rather than "classification". Prices have continued their slide, particularly in processors, to the point that our guide now focuses on complete PC systems for under $800.

Component classes and individual items were covered in detail in the various component guides in December. You will find those a useful reference for many of the components chosen in these system guides. This guide will take a closer look at the complete systems you can build for less than $800 these days. We have also revised the component tables with a subtotal for the basic system without speakers, I/O, display, or OS as several readers have requested. With a quick glance you can now see the cost to build a basic box which many would consider in a system upgrade. You can also see the total to build a complete system with all the peripherals needed for a balanced brand new setup.

In this guide we will be taking a look three common categories of systems you can now buy for under $800. This includes the entry-Level PCs that represent the best value for a basic box costing around $300 or a complete system for around $500. The bar is then raised with budget PCs that feature the most bang for the buck closer to $500 for the basic box and the $800 price point for a complete system.

It was a bit of surprise to find you could build very capable AMD and Intel machines, complete with keyboard, mouse, operating system, and a Full HD widescreen monitor for less than $800. These all rely on integrated graphics, but it is very easy to add a capable discrete graphics card if you require more graphics power and still end up well below $1000. In reality, dedicated gaming rigs normally begin in the midrange spectrum and entry PCs are normally the realm of integrated graphics. However, CPU prices are so low today with so much power that it would be very easy to add a $100 to $150 video card and end up with powerful graphics that can easily tackle gaming.

All of our recommendations are upgradable - even the cheapest entry boxes. You never know where your computer interest might lead, so options for future upgrades are always a good idea. The storage recommendations may seem overkill to some, but there is little reason to choose a smaller hard drive when you can buy 500GB of hard drive storage for $59 and a 1000GB (1TB) drive for just $100. Since most will have trouble filling 500GB on an entry PC we didn't choose anything larger, but you can easily double your storage to 1TB for just $40 to $50 more.

Finally, we put together basic HTPC computers to deliver video content to your home theater. HTPC builders have normally already selected a display/TV and the sound system. For that reason we did not include either the display or speakers in the basic HTPC component selections. With the current CPU and chipset power available in the entry to lower mid-range it is amazing how much video-crunching power you can put into an HTPC at such a low price.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • v12v12 - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    I agree most of these posts are the nerds-nit-pick special! I'm sorry but if you're whining about $15 here and $20, get a clue and get a REAL JOB or start saving/studying for certs/school and make some real money.

    This shoe-string budget crap, for a so-called "gamer" box is plain stupidity. If you're hurting over $600-800 MAX limit, sounds like you have your financial PRIORITIES out of whack! Nobody is "gaming" for long with a $600 box. It's a fool's investment and will have you stuck with a sub-par performing machine, rapidly. Oh and don't even think about resale, you're stuck with the low-end junk.

    While mirroring the car market: UPSCALE cars/PC builds lose a small percentage of value as soon as you buy them, BUT they hold top value over the coming months Vs this low-mid-level junk that immediately loses an chance of resale value. Have you seen how many stupid people are on Ebay that overbid even for those relic 8800s?!
    Who's going to buy your used, non-warranted (many manu's do require proof of purchase these days) 2nd rate card for ~$30 less than RETAIL? Pawning that off to ebay noobs is your only hope to recoupe your losses. Be smart people.

    If you're maxing out around $600 = STOP and rethink your finances... $800? Might as well save and get an Icore. Geesh, oh and don't forget about TAXES + initial cost of hardware lol. Not to mention if something goes wrong and you have to RMA = how you gonna afford S/H if you can barely afford a paltry $600-800?

    Flame time...
  • nubie - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    I did get an e5200, for $59.

    But the motherboard I chose was not using single channel ram, or onboard video. I got an 8600GTS (the GTS is important, it has much more memory bandwidth - 2000mhz DDR3) for $43.

    I would like to note that new systems with any sort of budget should be built with a quad-core (unless you need that 4.0ghz clocked Wolfdale for gaming of course.) The Q6600 is only $160 on ebay, and it is a really solid performer.

    Kudos to showing how to build a system for people new to the task (and it is infinitely better than letting the newbs pick their own stuff, like 3GB of ram and a 9800pro for example.)

    I guess ultimate hard-core system building isn't your cup of tea, maybe we need a "Reader's Rigs" section where we can duke it out with budget builds to see what can really be done. (I would cheat, there are P6N OEM boards for $40 on ebay, and MSI should RMA them for functionality with 45nm processors, it already took a Celeron 440 to 3.33ghz without even a voltage bump!! Ironically Speedstep now starts at the 2.0ghz rating of the chip, so it cycles up less than before.)

  • Knowname - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    The only future proof quad cores right now are the i7's, even the Phenom 2's will choke under a very taxing 4-core+ program. The proof is in the cache, where even the Phenom's 6mb (shared) is just too little for a fully multicore aware program. It is for this reason that the Core2Quad's 2mb or 4mb cache per core is just TERRIBLE future proofing.

    Then again, you have to ask yourself... just how much future proofing do I need? When we are in an era of replacing ENTIRE computers every 9 months.
  • Knowname - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    well my point was it may actually be better for somebody looking to future proof at these prices to buy a e8xxx rather than a q6xxx... JMO.
  • nubie - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Well, for these prices I would recommend that somebody wait for i7.

    If they are really on a budget there are 650i OEM motherboards for $40 on ebay, and look for a good deal on a Wolfdale ~$60-70, or overclock the heck out of a Celeron 430/440 (my last two were fine at 3 and 3.33ghz respectively.)

    My definition of budget is being out of steady work for ~3 years, so the value for money needs to be very high, and the e5200 and Core2 Celeron are very good in that regard, with 70% overclocks the norm.

    My budget systems come in around the $300-350 mark, not the $500+ segment, and yet I would say that they offer the same functionality for gaming and general use (and as I said, I would go Q6600 if I could, probably will when everyone moves to i7 and the prices drop below $100)
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    Great deal I saw on Fatwallet the other day if you are a student (or know someone whom is). This would drop another $35 bucks which would allow for some much needed flexibility especially on the entry-level systems where that difference is ~7% of the build price.

    Oh to be a student again.....">
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    Wanted to mention that page also includes Office Ultimate 2007 for $60 if you are an active student. Not bad for someone who needs Office (I personally use OpenOffice).

    *Seems like the Vista Ultimate might be an upgrade version and not the full version. It's difficult to confirm as the main page that is linked doesn't mention which version but if you click on it it shows upgrade with sp1. Someone less of a hot deal if it's the upgrade only.
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    Anand see if your weight in the tech industry will allow you to aquire for testing one of these puppies:">

    I'd love to see it put through its paces, even though it is in a completely different class ($5000 for lowest model).
  • scwtlover - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    For the entry-level AMD system, you recommend G.Skill 800-DDR2 RAM at $37. It's timings are 5-5-5-15 and 1.8V, but it does not come with a heat-spreader. Should we infer that a heat-spreader is unnecessary?

    mushkin 1.8V memory, with 5-4-4-12 timings and a heat-spreader is available, after rebate, for only $3 more.

    And, how significant is 1.8V? At 800-DDR2 Newegg sells OCZ with a heat-spreader and 5-4-4-15 timings, but 2.1V. It's $24 after rebate. Corsair's offering, after rebate, is only $20. It has heat-spreaders, and is 1.9V. The timings are 5-5-5-18? How significant is 12 v. 15 v. 18?

    If we look at 1066 DDR2 RAM, the OCZ sticks you recommend cost $28, after rebate. You advise: "Just be sure to look for RAM with better timings if you can afford it." The OCZ is CAS 7, with 7-7-7-20 at 2.0V. For $30, after rebate, Newegg sells OCZ2P10664GK. It's CAS 5, with 5-5-5-18 timings at 2.2V. For $8 more than that, you can get the same RAM plus a bundled XTC memory cooler. How important is voltage versus timings? For $34, that is, $6 more than the OCZ, Newegg sells OCZ Reaper with 5-5-5-18 timings at 2.1V
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    Traditional "Plate stuck on each side" heatspreaders do almost nothing to cool the ram. in fact sometimes they hold in heat and are actually worse than no heatspreader at all. Some more exotic HS designs used in more expensive RAM that is run at higher voltages sometimes do help cool the RAM.

    The OCZ is DDR2-1066 with slower timings and the 5-5-5 and faster is DDR2-800. The same 7-7-7 1066 memory often runds fine at 5-5-5 at DDR2-800. Higher speed usually means slower timings. If you can find faster RAM like DDR2-1066 at CAS 5 at a similar price then buy it.

    As I said in the article quality RAM at the same speed can be selected from any of the major memory providers. Comparing two at the same price look at highest speed combined with reasonable timings. If the two memories are the same price and the same speed then timings (and warranty support) should be your main considerations.

    We try to select reasonable choices we have personal experience in using at AT. But there are many rebates in memory right now - and they change daily. You need to be flexible if you are looking for memory that is the best value.

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