Introduction

Low-end PCs have a reputation for being sub-standard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. However, low-end merely refers to the price, and right now companies like AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA are throwing out quality components for prices that traditionally belong with outdated or inadequate hardware. You just have to know what to look for. In this guide we will be taking a look at both the entry-level and budget gaming offerings, with comments and suggestions specifically on stability, quality of components, and - with the budget gaming systems - balancing budget and quality with overclocking and stability.

In the time since our last Budget Guide in April, we have witnessed some major changes to the hardware market that have affected our decisions. Both AMD and Intel refreshed their CPU lineups with die shrinks, simultaneously increasing performance while reducing power consumption. This of course also allowed for further price cuts in the ongoing CPU price war. Both companies are facing imminent product launches, Intel with their Penryn refresh of the Core 2 architecture and AMD with the much-delayed Phenom processor family - including the native quad-core Barcelona/K10.

NVIDIA just recently launched their second generation of DX10 hardware in the 8800 GT 512MB - or should we say, they released a refresh of the first generation that appeared a year ago. The 8800 GT 512MB is a tweaked version of the high-end 8800 GTS/GTX series built on a smaller 65nm manufacturing process. Because of the ability to produce more GPU chips on each wafer, the card comes with a lower price tag and a move to the midrange sector. Especially exciting is that this card is being priced between $200 and $250, cheaper than the 8800 GTS (320MB and 640MB) and GTX (768MB) but with performance almost on par with the $500 8800 GTX. The best part is, at this price, we've managed to create a powerhouse of a budget gaming rig for just a tad over $1000.

With Vista now approaching its first birthday, driver issues are (for the most part) no longer a problem. That means it's finally time to justify the purchase of DX10 hardware if you haven't already, right? Well, yes and no. There are still issues with Vista, ranging from SLI incompatibilities to missing soundcard drivers and the oft-rumored slowdown of performance in Vista vs. XP machines. Indeed, many users chose to revert to Windows XP after encountering stability or performance issues under Vista, while others are arguing that current DX10 titles don't justify the cost of an upgrade. However, is XP still an alternative? Although our inclination is to believe performance is still better in XP - the OS memory footprint is certainly much smaller - we are in no doubt as to the future of Windows, and our choices reflect that.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 13, 2007 - link

    Don't forget the display! That adds about $200 if you use the display we selected, so you save a bit of money but get a smaller HDD (1/4 the size), a GPU that's not half as fast as the 8800 GT, and I'd use something other than the ASUS M2A-VM if you're going to have a discrete GPU in there. I'm a bit confused as to whether you were shooting for "budget" or "budget gaming".

    I try not to repeat stuff on every page, as I assume (possibly incorrectly) that people will read the article as a whole. We do mention the option to get a better PSU on the Intel Gaming page. The reality is, all the good PSUs start at around $60 (PCP&C 360W is $58 shipped). I figure you either get one of the 80% Energy Efficient Certified models, or go with whatever comes with your chosen case.

    Hope that clarifies things a bit - we're not saying these systems are the *only* way to go right now, as individual needs will vary. If you're looking at gaming, though, I don't think I'd get anything less than the 8800 GT these days. You can cut corners elsewhere to your hearts content, but there are quite a few titles out that now require a lot of GPU power even at moderate resolutions. (Hellgate: London, for example, is pretty sluggish even on a single 8800 GTX! Same goes for the Crysis demo.)
    Reply
  • Crassus - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Just as an aside - I remember frequent references to the Anandtech Real Time Pricing (labs.anandtech.com) in the old buyer's guides. That seems to have completely disappeared. I wanted to look up something there and I only get error messages, both in Firefox and IE. Is it me or is it you? Reply
  • phusg - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Thanks for the article. Just one grammatical mistake that really grates me:

    "Even though the Intel system comes in at a lower price" is fine.
    "Even though the Intel system is cheaper" is fine.

    quote:

    Even though the Intel system comes in at a cheaper price
    is not!

    Reply
  • Polizei - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Bravo, Bravo. I just wanted to say that I greatly appreciate this article. I'm an avid computer enthusiast and have followed Anandtech, HardOCP, and CPU magazine for years. That said, I've never felt it necessary to become involved in the forum thread posting until this article. Far too many websites seem to ignore the fact that stable, overclockable, affordable, and high-performing parts are available if someone needs to go that route. $2,000-$6,000 high-performance gaming systems are often regarded as a must-have for every enthusiast, which limits a great deal of modern society if they so choose to game, watch movies, or just want a faster computer. So again, my hat is off to you guys for finally stepping up and putting together a very good guide for lower-priced rigs that actually don't suck and crash every 5 minutes. Not sure if you follow competitors at all, but Maximum PC Magazine recently did a similar article and it was just atrocious as to how they approached it - http://www.maximumpc.com/article/the_500_pc_build_...">http://www.maximumpc.com/article/the_500_pc_build_... Reply
  • wjl - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    First: the Intel CPUs mentioned here are not able to support hardware virtualization, which is a major issue for me. You have to get a Core 2 Duo 6xxx for that purpose, and they are still pretty more expensive than AMD's offerings, which all (except the low-end Sempron line) support VT-X (they call it Pacifica).

    Second: As mentioned here before, considering and testing compatibility with Linux is especially with the low budget model a major issue as well. Integrated Intel graphics would be better in that regard, because they open sourced most of their graphics drivers. For an AMD system, open source drivers will be coming, but at the moment those from nVidia should perform better - and you can select whether you want to use the free nv driver or the unsupported but free (as in beer) proprietary driver from nVidia.

    Third: As of today, you should think a bit about the "green" factor. Most of todays CPUs are more than fast enough for any serious work we could throw at them, except maybe video processing. Selecting CPUs like the AMD BE series (with 45W max) or even lower level Intel chips (without virtualization capabilities, as mentioned before) should have been considered. There's also much to think about when it comes to power supplies and so on.

    Maybe it's interesting to look at the "Solar PC", built from the guys over at Tom's Hardware in Munich? They ended up with a systems which consumes about 61W when idle - including the monitor! Of course, here Laptops really shine.

    With low-cost NAS devices like the IcyBox (or MaPower) available, you could even have thought about thin clients or thin-client-like new offering like the Asus Eee PC (like Asus say, they are selling one each 6 seconds now). For 400$ or 300€, you'll get a neat little machine which can do most of what people want to do with their computers today. Add the same price for a RAID1 NAS, which can be shared within your household, and you'll have the perfect "green" setup.

    kind regards,
    wjl aka Wolfgang Lonien
    (you'll find more thoughts from me on the topic on my pages in the interweb)
    Reply
  • Calin - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Yes, the 800x480 pixels monitor on an Asus Eee will do great, especially in Windows with its fat themes (XP with default theme, Vista with default theme).
    Hardware virtualization might be a problem, though I hear it isn't much used for performance reasons.
    Low power processors? All the way. By the way, you could get low power from a normal processor by undervolting (and maybe underclocking). Not sure if it's possible on the chosen mainboards.
    Reply
  • wjl - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Who needs Windows to write a letter or surf the net? I hope that system will be history soon, like the dinosaurs... Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, November 13, 2007 - link

    Considering that the average website these days is designed to target a minimum of 1024x768 resolution, surfing on a smaller screen can be a pain. Reply
  • tomoyo - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    A gamer would never pick a 5ms TN-Film lcd. Those have a lot of ghosting issues compared to 2ms TN-films. Reply
  • tomoyo - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    First of all, many components are completely unexplained. Second I dislike a number of the choices, the most major issue being the case/psu. Both case and psu picked are from very low quality makers. These are the types of psus that tend to explode with major load. They should never be recommended to users of anandtech. I'd like to see some more detailed research and explanations that go with a focus on good quality components, rather than trying to keep to some cutrate budget. Reply

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