Introduction

In the last few weeks we've looked at almost all the components you would need to build your new PC. This includes motherboards, memory, cases and power supplies, video cards, displays, and storage. Now it is time to put all these parts together into a couple of systems buyers' guides.

Since we have already covered component classes and individual items in detail in the recent component guides, you will find those a useful reference to the components chosen in these system guides. This guide will take a closer look at several complete systems you can build for $500 to $1000 these days. Next week, we will look more closely at midrange systems in the price range of $1000 to $2000.

Low-end PCs have a reputation for being substandard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. That certainly has been true in the past, but with the continuing drop in component prices, you can get a lot of PC for your $500 to $1000. About a year ago it would cost about $700 to $750 to put together a decent "entry" system. Today you can build a similar but more powerful system, for about $200 less.

The fierce competition between Intel and AMD on the CPU front, and between AMD/ATI and NVIDIA in the GPU market, have made it possible to buy quality components for prices that used to be reserved for outdated hardware. You just have to know what to look for. The closeouts and "gotchas" are still out there, but armed with a little knowledge you can navigate the components offered and end up with a really powerful computer for the money you spend.

In this guide we will be looking at three common categories of systems you can now buy for under $1000. This includes the Entry-level PC, which is the best value for a complete system costing around $500. The bar is then raised to the upper end of our budget price range with Budget PCs that feature the most bang for the buck closer to the $1000 price point. It was a bit of surprise to find you could build very capable AMD and Intel machines, complete with keyboard, mouse, operating system, video card, 4GB of memory, and 19" wide-screen monitor for less than $850, leaving room for a monitor or graphics upgrade while still remaining under $1000.

Finally, we put together basic HTPC computers to deliver video content to your Home Theater. HTPC builders have normally already selected a display/TV for video and have a sound system, so we did not include either the display or speakers in the basic HTPC component selections. That is a subject for another article.

In the "Under $1000" PC market it really does not matter if you select AMD or Intel for your CPU. Performance across both lines is very competitive at the same price points in this category. That is why both AMD and Intel systems are presented at each price point. If we were choosing a high-end system at this moment the only real choice would be Intel, but with Phenom II around the corner that may soon change.

While the Intel i7 is a recent introduction and Phenom II is coming in about two weeks, both new processors will have the greatest impact at the upper middle to the top-end CPU offerings. The impact on the sub-$1000 category should be very small, consisting mostly of minor price cuts on "outdated" hardware and platforms. PCs in the "under $1000" category also frequently utilize onboard graphics, and there is no expectation for a new blockbuster IGP chipset on the horizon. While change is a constant in the computer industry, you can build PCs for less than $1000 today with some confidence that the system will continue to provide competitive performance for a reasonable period of time.

All of our recommendations are also upgradable, so you can add the latest video card and turn the system into a reasonable gaming or graphics processing system if you choose (provided your PSU is up to snuff, of course). GPUs deliver exceptional performance at the lowest price points seen in many years. 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 $110. Now let's get to the recommendations.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • SleepyItes - Thursday, January 01, 2009 - link

    The HTPC truly is a "very personal machine", and I'm glad that you mentioned this in the beginning of the HTPC segment. I just finished a budget HTPC for under $400 (granted I used an existing HDD, TV Tuner, and OS license) and I can say that the choices in this market segment are vast, and require careful evaluation of particular requirements and considerations. I toyed around with various configurations and price ranges before I finally found the balance that was right for me. Home theater organization, TV resolution, gaming needs, and budget all played a role in component selection.

    I started with a case that would fit nicely with my A/V rack, the Antec NSK 2480. I found an excellent deal on a CPU/Mobo combo at an unnamed local vendor. I was building this for a low-ish resolution TV (1280x768) so I chose not to go with blu-ray, which saved me a bundle. I wanted discreet graphics to be able to do some casual gaming. However, since I have such a low resolution TV (and such old games), I did not even need a mid-range card. Instead, my focus was on power consumption, so I decided to go with a Radeon HD 4670. Sure, for $10 more (after rebate) I could have gotten the 4830, but it uses a lot of power, runs hot, and takes up a lot of space (which is at a premium in an HTPC case).

    I'm just reinforcing the notion that building an HTPC is not about pure performance, features, or bang for buck. It's about building a system that fits into your entertainment center and satisfies your particular needs.

    Fantastic guide! I cannot wait to read next week's.
    Reply
  • bearxor - Wednesday, December 31, 2008 - link

    It surprises me that you picked a 95w processor for the AMD build. Is it a HTPC or is it a computer hooked up to a TV? There should be a differentiator. HTPC's generally never get used for regular computer tasks.

    A computer that is hooked up to a TV that you use on a regular basis and then happen to stream some movies or downloaded stuff to every once in a while is LRPC (Living Room PC), not a HTPC, which should be inside the media interface full-time and only used as a computer on special occasions and even then, for pretty much nothing except web browsing/youtube playing.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, December 31, 2008 - link

    lol, just what we need, another acronym for another supposed market segment.

    I believe the reason they recommend reasonably fast processors is for transcoding duties. If you don't record TV and rip your optical media elsewhere, or don't mind shuffling files around a lot, then the HTPC obviously wouldn't need much processor power.
    Reply
  • bearxor - Thursday, January 01, 2009 - link

    That's the thing though, recording tv doesn't use a lot of processor power at all. It's all about the speed of your hard drive. I can record 2 SD, 2 HD and 2 Digital Cable (QAM) simultaneously while playing back an HD recording and still wind up using less than 50% of my processor with an Opteron 165. Any dual-core machine can handle HTPC duties with ease.
    Reply
  • spiral529 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    For the Budget Intel build, the specified motherboard (Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3R) accepts an 8-pin CPU power connector, while the suggested power supply (OCZ OCZ400MXSP 400W) only has a 4-pin plug.

    According to some of the NewEgg reviews, the board will not operate correctly without the 8-pin supply!
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    The CORSAIR CMPSU-400CX 400W ATX12V V2.2 80 PLUS Certified Power Supply is also 80 Certified, the same cost of $35 after $25 mail-in rebate and it also has the 8-pin CPU power connector. Our PS Editor picked it in the Case and Power Supply Roundup.

    We will change the PS for the Intel Budget system to the Corsair 400W so buyers do not have to wonder if the PS will work properly with the motherboard. You can buy the Corsair at http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8....
    Reply
  • spiral529 - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    Thanks for the info. Unfortunately I just bought this board without noticing the connector. I'll try it out with my current (4-pin) PSU first before I spring for a new one. Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    Normally a good PS 4-pin 12V will drive the motherboard 8-pin just fine, but we don't have the OCZ PS in the lab to confirm right now. A 4-pin to 8-pin 12V converter should fix the issue - if there is one - at a very low cost. The converter is available from Newegg for $3.50 at http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.a...5&Tp....

    We really prefer the modular PS cables of the recommended OCZ PS because of their flexibility and the ease of upgrading, but we are looking at some possible alternates as another recommendation for the Bargain PS.
    Reply
  • StriderGT - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    Zotac N73PV-Supreme NVIDIA GeForce 7100 HMDI:
    I am looking for the worst case scenario (%) vs using a dual channel DDR2 intel chipset eg G3X/G4X with the same Dual Core 5200@default speeds as well as OCed around 3Ghz
    (integrated GPU performance excluded)
    Reply
  • trake1 - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    Test Results: Single Vs. Dual Channel RAM

    Much less than 5% difference depending on application


    Reply

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