Introduction

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... it was a fantastic time to build a new PC. Last spring, with DDR2 memory prices in the toilet and budget Micro-ATX motherboards around every corner, we showed you how to piece together a quality dual-core PC for under $550—peripherals, monitor and operating system included. Then, we took the next logical step, and for the first time in Buyers' Guide history, we told you how to build a rig with no compromises—a fast chip, an overclockable motherboard, a 1080p LCD screen and even a gaming-quality graphics card—for just $300 more.

Needless to say, much has changed in the nine months since our last budget Buyers' Guide. Memory prices have risen drastically: the same exact 4GB of DDR2-800 we purchased for $27 last May would cost you $85 today. Intel has launched a series of exciting new 32nm processors—the Core i3 series in particular poised to offer serious value for mainstream computing—but at $125, they're too pricy for our budget box (though you'll find one in our mainstream config—see page 4). Windows 7 has completely supplanted Vista as the OS of choice for new PC builders and appears in all our suggested configurations, but even it comes at a $5 premium. And a number of the bang-for-the-buck parts we chose last year have been discontinued without a ready successor.

In short, it seems clear that you'll need to shell out a few more dollars if you want a new computer to match the high standards we set last year. But not all has changed for the worse. Even as DDR2 costs rise, quality DDR3 modules are close to finding price parity with their slower brethren. Motherboard and monitor features that once fetched a premium are also coming within reach of regular buyers. And if you shop around these days, you can often find free shipping on many if not all components. So if you do have the extra money to spare, we assure you that this edition of the System Buyers' Guide will afford you and yours more PC per penny than you've ever gotten before.

This guide continues the tradition of cordoning off the common components you may already own in a separate section of our pricing chart, allowing you to quickly and easily find the cost of a basic box without optional speakers, I/O, display or operating system, in addition to the total for a complete system with all required peripherals included. But now, by popular demand, we've separated mail-in rebates and added estimated shipping costs within the continental United States as well. With this measure in place, discerning buyers can find the true out-of-pocket cost of any of our suggested builds without having to consult a virtual shopping cart (except for taxes—you're on your own there).

If you're looking for an inexpensive yet dependable machine for a friend, relative, significant other or even yourself, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than our AMD Entry-level PC on page 2. Shipped to your doorstep for $717 before tax, it is filled with tried-and-true components centered around a tri-core Athlon II processor, 4GB of quality DDR3 memory and a motherboard equipped with the favored AMD 785G/SB710 chipset. If you'd prefer to go the Intel route, you'll find a similarly priced LGA 775 system on page 3; but be warned that that our Intel box doesn't offer quite the value of its AMD counterpart.

No, true Intel aficionados would do far better to check out our Intel Mainstream PC on page 4. Equipped with a new Intel Core i3 processor and the best H55 motherboard we've yet gotten our hands on, it comes with a bang-for-the-buck 1080p LCD monitor and a graphics card capable of driving both it and most any game you'd want to display for under $950 before tax. Of course, at that price point, AMD offers some stiff competition. On page 5, you'll find a similarly equipped AMD Mainstream PC sporting the Phenom II X3 720 Heka Black Edition, a 2.8GHz tri-core chip with an unlocked multiplier and, if you're lucky, an unlockable fourth core as well.

We realize that value comes at a price and that you often get what you pay for when it comes to computer components—but having shopped around, we also believe that any PC user would be happy with the value they receive from our suggested budget and mainstream configurations. That said, we don't want to make you think that these PCs are "one size fits all." They can each be upgraded and customized to match your tastes and computing style, and on page 6 we'll look at some of the inexpensive ways you can personalize your PC buying experience.

AMD Entry-Level PC
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  • Blur - Saturday, February 13, 2010 - link

    I'm really glad to see this feature come back, i built my first system using the parts recommended in a previous guide. Reply
  • DominionSeraph - Saturday, February 13, 2010 - link

    For only $6900 + a measly $400 tax (CT), you could have an 8 core 2.93GHz with a whopping 6GB RAM and a rebranded Geforce 8600 GT!

    Can i haz tek job nao?
    Reply
  • chrnochime - Saturday, February 13, 2010 - link

    I haven't been keeping up to date with the socket h burn issue. So, has Anand et al figured out, with or without help from the manu, determine the source of the socket burn problem?

    I can only speak for myself that unless this is determined conclusively, I'm stuck going with either socket 1366 or frantically scour up the last of the 775 motherboards.

    Reply
  • stardude82 - Saturday, February 20, 2010 - link

    There was never an really issue with the 1156 Boards. The problem was only with Foxconn sockets used for extreme overclocking above 4 Ghz. If you are really concerned there are lots of boards with the Lotts manufactured sockets. Reply
  • clarkn0va - Saturday, February 13, 2010 - link

    Ignoring ACC and the possibility of unlocking one core of the Athlon II X3 435, it's not obvious why one would pay an extra 67% for the Phenom II X3 720, at least not from the information provided in the article.

    Looking in Bench, these two CPUs trade blows on all the benchmarks and there is no obvious winner. Add to that the possibility of turning the 435 into a quad, and the fact that it's $50 cheaper, according to this article, and I have no idea how SH can recommend the 720 at all, at least not without looking at information beyond what's presented here and in Bench. Please enlighten me if I'm missing the point though.

    Great article, Sean. It's always interesting to see what other pros are recommending and why.

    http://www.anandtech.com/bench/default.aspx?p=112&...">http://www.anandtech.com/bench/default.aspx?p=112&...
    Reply
  • SeanHollister - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    You're right on the money, pun intended. In terms of performance per dollar at stock clocks, the Athlon is indeed a much better value for today's software, especially if you manage to unlock the fourth core.

    That said, there are three things that distinguish the Phenom. First, it's a better (and easier) overclocker. Second, it's the better gaming CPU in all benchmarks I've yet seen. Third and most importantly, it's got a sizable L3 cache—fast becoming an industry standard for CPUs—where the Athlon has none.

    In today's software and benchmarks, the L3 cache doesn't offer much of an advantage, just as a dual-core processor wouldn't offer an advantage over a single core a number of years back, but I'm guessing that as just as multithreading takes hold, so will the L3 cache that assists it.

    All that said, is a bit of futureproofing and a little extra gaming performance worth $50? To be completely honest, when I first chose the Phenom chip, I was calculating its value at the Newegg price of $105, which I realized at the very last minute was the price for the bare CPU, *without a cooler,* and failed to rethink the value equation when I adjusted the price.
    Reply
  • piasabird - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    http://www.directron.com/clarkdalesys1.html">http://www.directron.com/clarkdalesys1.html

    Part Number:SYS-Clarkdale-System-01Regular price:$419.99On Sale: $399.99

    System Components:
    Processor: Intel Core i3 530 2.93GHz Clarkdale 32nm Dual Core CPU
    Memory: 2GB (1x2GB) DDR3 1066 memory
    Motherboard: MSI H55M-E33 Socket 1156 Micro-ATX motherboard with Intel H55 chipset
    Video: Integrated
    Audio: 8 Channel Audio
    Storage: 320GB SATA2 Hard Drive
    Optical: 24X DVD-RW Drive
    Case: Thermaltake V3 Black Edition mid-tower case with TR2 450W power supply.
    Reply
  • jigar - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    My very first post on Anandtech. before today i hadn't even heard of Anandtech. Found it really impressive (especially the CPU benchmark comparison bit).

    after reading this article i have decided to build my own base unit (with the help of a pal). my old unit stopped working few days ago (hence the reason me trawling the net).

    thing is, the prices quoted are in dollars. do you guys have any idea how much cheaper/expensive they are in UK? i tried shopping on amazon for parts and found out that intel core i3 530 is about £90 (is that reasonable? do you guys know where else i could shop for parts?)

    also, i got confused whilst reading the article. do i need to buy two hard drives or just one? you have mentioned WD Caviar blue 500GB on the intel mainstream pc system but in the upgrade section you have said that intel X25-V solid state drive which is only 40GB (£96 on amazon) is essential for a multitasker as it also speeds up basic computing and will cut windows load times by half.

    i am actually not a gamer. i just want a system where as mentioned above, the windows load up quickly and where i can use different programs at once (without slowing down the computer - e.g. internet and microsoft word etc).

    the other thing you mentioned was Cooling - CPU retail HSF - i searched for it on amazon but nothing came up :(

    i also already have a monitor so just need a base unit which is fast and reliable (i am totally fed up with installing windows software every few months).

    my original budget was between £200 and £300 but may spend upto £400.

    Any help will be really appreciated.
    Reply
  • FlyTexas - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Welcome to AnandTech, one of the better tech review sites on the web.

    A quick heads up, most of us here have been doing this awhile and are rather techie, so forgive us when we talk over your head, it is not meant to be rude.

    The Heatsink & Fan come with the Retail version of the CPU, you do not buy them separately.

    You don't have to buy 2 hard drives, the suggestion for the 40GB Intel drive is just due to the speed of SSDs (Solid State Drives). These drives use flash memory rather than spinning disks, they are fast, but expensive.

    As for places to buy, almost everyone here will tell you NewEgg, however they do not sell internationally. Google "newegg uk equivalent" to get some ideas.
    Reply
  • jigar - Saturday, February 13, 2010 - link

    but if i only get one hard drive with a 40Gb storage (i admit it will be faster and that is what i want) but where would i store all the files?

    what if i buy two hard drives? one fast solid state 40GB to boot up the computer and the other to store files (i would like the system to work for atleast few years so i probably will need a big enough hard drive) so is it possible to have two hard drives, one to boot up and one to store files?

    how big is 40GB, will it be enough for me? i watched avatar and saved it on my desktop (the legend of aang series is alone 15GB). it was my favourite so i downloaded it. but i dont download/save movies so probably something like 250 or 500GB should be enough for me?

    since i saved those avatar files, my computer went really slow. it would take minutes (literaly) to take any single action.

    can you make a separate list for me please? (using uk part names) there is this website www.pcspecialist.co.uk (may be you can guide me through their prices and parts).

    Reply

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