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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  • Ratman6161 - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Take for example your Intel entry level build at $690.00.

    Check out this from HP: http://www.shopping.hp.com/webapp/shopping/compute...">http://www.shopping.hp.com/webapp/shopp...ktops/Ev...

    Or I'll save you the time of following the link by saying its an i3 based system with 4gb DDR3 RAM and onboard video and audio. So that should be better performance than the E5300 and its $549.00

    About two months ago I bought my inlaws a similar system but with the 5300 and 3 GB DDR2 on my company's employee purchase program for $349.00.

    Build it yourself makes sense for mid-range to high end -- if that is you are the kind of person who wants to get exactly the specs you were looking for. But on the low end, there is just no way that you can build a system for the prices the big OEMs are charging. The other big advantage is that if I built the system for them, then I would also become their technical support where this way they can call HP. Then again, the system has been working so well, they haven't had to call HP either.
    Reply
  • poohbear - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Thank you for putting this article up, i was waiting for one of your system builder guides as a rough reference as they're usually on the money, this article was no exception.:) Alot of solid info there, will definitely use it as a reference for the next couple of months when people ask for advice (all my friends and family want a budget PC, i only know enthusiast parts! lol) Reply
  • juampavalverde - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Congrats for the first article Sean, it feels very "anandtech" like. Reply
  • papapapapapapapababy - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    all over the place. who makes this lame shopping list? example... the LGA 775 motherboard is a terrible choice, TERRIBLE for like 2 bucks you have this one > GA-EP43T-USB3 LGA 775 the difference ? nah not much, just that onboard NEC uPD720200 host controller ( that means USB3 support ) The funny thing, im just a guy from Argentina (cant even buy the dam board) even then i know how to build a better pc than the experts over here. great job Anad... Reply
  • piasabird - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    If you are going to look at an i3 530 why not also look at the E7500 and see which processor does best for the money.

    It seems like they would be fairly compatible at about the same price. Why go to a new somewhat experimental H55 motherboard if there is not enough of an improvement?
    Reply
  • johnsonx - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    While it's true that MOST power supplies that come with cases are nearly worthless, there are some exceptions. Many Antec and some Coolermaster cases come with perfectly nice power supplies. The Antec NSK4480 comes with an EarthWatts 380 for only $70 (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...
    There are other examples as well.
    Reply
  • johnsonx - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    oops, the closing paren got included with the URL above, here it is again:

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    When we were putting the guide together, I actually looked at that exact system. You'll notice the regular price is listed at $100? That's what it was two days ago, which is why I didn't bother Sean with the change. I figure for the $20 extra, a 500W PSU was a better choice. For $80 (plus shipping), it's a much more attractive option, provided you don't want to upgrade to a high-end GPU down the road.

    The 380W is good for something like a 5770 with an i3/i5 CPU or Phenom II X4 level CPU, but if you overclock the CPU you're going to be pushing it very hard. Add in something in the 5850 class and you'd likely peak at close to 100% power draw, if not slightly more. On the other hand, if you just want to run at stock with IGP, such a setup is a great idea. (I wish more cases shipped with 80 Plus certified PSUs... a year ago, I recall a few cases like that falling into the $65-$75 shipped range.)
    Reply
  • Bugler - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    I really enjoy reading these guides and the thought process that goes into your builds. My last build was 2004, which I am still using; however, I want to upgrade, the board, ram, cpu. etc.

    At the time I built back then, I tried to use some of the best components to make it easier to upgrade in the future. I am just not certain which parts I can retain with my rebuild.

    I have a large Cooler Master Stacker full tower case, a OCZ Power Stream 520w power supply, a 7.1 channel Sound blaster Audigy2 zs gamer PCI sound card, and an eVGA nvidia geforce 6800 GT 256mb GDDR graphic card that I am hoping to reuse. Do you guys see any problems with me using these components in your mid level build package option?

    I admit, I have not stayed up on the knowledge aspect of components specs the past few years. My video card is bus APG 4x/8x but does output to DVI.

    Also, my CPU heatsink is the Theralright XP-90 which has been sitting on my 939 socket AMD for the fast five years. Is that something I can reuse in this build?

    Thank you in advance guys.
    Reply
  • FlyTexas - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Keep the case and power supply, maybe the Sound Blaster card and DVD drive if you really want, dump everything else.

    Why? First, AGP is long gone, PCI-Express is now how video cards are installed. Built in graphics won't be as good as your former video card, but they'll be close. For $100, the ATI 4850 will run rings around your old card.

    Second, modern hard drives are a lot faster than they were in 2004, don't hobble a new system with a 5 year old drive.

    You can probably reuse your old heatsink and fan if you go AMD, but do you really want to? The fan is 5 years old, it wasn't designed or certified for modern CPUs.
    Reply

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