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and NVIDIA in the GPU market, have made it possible to buy quality components for prices that used to be reserved for outdated hardware.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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  • BernardP - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    I have had a system based on Asus M3N78-VM GeForce 8200 motheboard for a month. I have all the latest chipset, audio (NVidia + VIA) and video drivers installed. I have tried all possible audio settings and configurations, in WinXP and BIOS. Despite this, I have been unable to get audio through HDMI, although the HDMI video is perfect @ 1280x720.

    Searching on the net, this seems to be a widespread problem. Some users report they have HDMI audio working, but they don't seem to have done anything special to make it work.

    The fundamental problem is that, on my system, there is no visible option to select HDMI audio, either in Hardware Manager or Control Panel/Sounds.

    Anyone knows the sure-fire recipe to enable audio through HDMI on the 8200/8300 chipset?

    Reply
  • zerodeefex - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    I'm surprised you didn't suggest a more powerful video card added on to the AMD HTPC. A 4550 or greater gets you completely working audio over HDMI. There are a few PQ benefits as well, and you can make do with a weaker processor, and the upgraded video will still provide superior deinterlacing, especially for SD content. Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    Our goal was to provide an integrated video solution for the HTPC systems that would adequately handle HD video content like Blu-Ray. That is certainly possible with today's improved integrated graphics, and the boards we chose have excellent reputations as HTPC boards.

    You 4550 or higher video card alternative is certainly a good one, and a good choice for those with the needs you describe.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    Your text for the budget systems states that you kept the 500GB hard drives, but the price tables show 640GB units.

    The tables on those same systems have apparently been edited during the time I was reading the article to add the 4830 graphics.

    From my experience the Logitech EX100 sets offer rather limited range - around 3-5 feet from the receiver. Unless you are going to put the receiver in the couch, that might not work too well for an HTPC.

    The stock Intel HSF incorporates heatpipes somewhere? The ones I have seen appear to be just a solid aluminum or copper core (depending on processor) and extruded aluminum fins.
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    An earlier working spreadsheet, rather than the final choices, was used for the Budget configurations. That has been corrected.

    We missed the HD reference in our editing. Thanks for pointing it out. It is now fixed.
    Reply
  • bunga28 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    I'm confused. I thought no video on board for this MB? Please clarify. thanks. Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    The Budget Systems did include a Radeon 4830 video card at $85. The configurations have been corrected and we are in the process of fixing the text references. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. Reply
  • bunga28 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    thanks for fixing that. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    The mid-range buyers guide. I had planned to go with the new i7 platform and occompanying high cost of mobo/ddr3. Now I'm thinking of just building a temp system for a year or two (since I have a 19" lcd), and only replacing my cpu/mobo/ram/video card. I'll be waiting on the next article before planning my upgrade path...

    Thanks again for this one.
    Reply

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