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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  • rochlin - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Useful article but missing some stuff:
    Benchmarks: Why not benchmark these machines against each other?
    How much more oomph do you really get? AMD vs Intel? Put your recommendations side by side.

    Also, you need to "benchmark" your own skills. Compare your home built machine to a comparable Dell - with whatever their current sale is. The Dell i3 machine comes out much cheaper than yours (albeit sans extra vid card - but still it's like 750 w mon vs $950 for yours. That's something your readers ought to know.
    Building a machine is NOT usually the cheap route anymore.
    Reply
  • Ananke - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    It is not cheap, since you have to pay at least $100 for the operational system, if you go Windows.

    However, OEM computers are designed to NOT be able to upgrade. The simplest example is trying to put powerful video a year later - the PSU will not be sufficient. Then, you will need to replace the PSU, but the case is proprietary and you will need new case too. If you pay attention to how many open slots for HDDs you have in Dell/HP, you will also realize serious restriction there. not to mention that Dell's internal design consists of strange and large plastic hoods for the fans, which are often obstructing new video cards. Also, you may just realize that the memory banks are only two on most OEMs, and hence you are going to double expenses if larger memory is needed.

    My suggestion: first buy nice and spacious case with 90 degree HDD cage and at least four HDD slots! Example - Cooler Master Elite 310 for $49 (cheap, but the cages are 90 degree on this one).Then get really good PSU - Corsair, PCP&P, Seasonic 750W and above - you need it for all the available connectors and capacity for indefinite future expansion. Then decide on the platform. I had Intel, just recently switched to AMD and I am very happy actually with what I got for the twice less money - Fry's deal on Athlon II X4 630 with free Asus 785G micro-ATX, total $130. Yesterday I replayed Crysis warhead, it runs smooth on Enthusiast 1920*1200, with Radeon 5850.

    Buy 2*2 GB DDR3 - there are modules on sale. I prefer Kingston Hyper X for stability. The idea is you want to start with at least two banks by 2GB so you have enough and still room for further expansion. The mobo should have 4 memory banks, not only two.

    I got micro ATX, next upgrade I can use the micro ATX for a home server box or HTPC. If you get full ATX now, you cannot use it for HTPC small factor later, because it's big. Of course, if building ultimate machine, the choice of components is different. mine is best bang for the buck for gaming and video editing. Spec:

    Asus A785M microATX, Athlon II X4 630, 8GB Kingston Hyper 1600 DDR3, 4*1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 /not the 11th series- it's junk/, XFX Radeon 5850 regular, PCP&P 750W, Windows 7 64-bit Pro This comp gets 7.7 Win performance index. All components have frequent sale. Cut the memory to 4 GB, use HDD by your taste, use cheaper video and voila - you have power under $500. Intel configuration would cost me more. Instead I opt for the Radeon 5850. I transcode with Cyberlink Esspresso 5.5 or Avivo because are GPU accelerated. The last time it transcoded 4.31GB x.264 to PSP for 17 minutes :):). The Radeons are crazy stuff and under load temp is 42 Celsius. My previous G285 was going 81 Celsius under load and the entire motherboard was getting cooked.


    Reply
  • brybir - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    I agree about comparing to pre-built. The best bang for the buck in lower end builds is probably not building yourself anymore.

    For example, Gateway has a new Gateway DX4831-05 Desktop with:

    i5-650 @3.2GHz,
    8GB DDR3,
    1TB HDD,
    DVDRW,
    HDMI,
    eSATA,
    FireWire,
    Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
    G310 graphics card

    and this all comes in at $799 shipped free and no tax to most states. If you can find one refurbed you can cut another $100 off of that.


    So the prebuilt machine comes in at $150 less but is arguably a better machine with a better processor, more ram, bigger hard drive, and a warranty with room to upgrade to a better video card. Even if you tack on $100 for a better vid card, you still save $50 and get much better system specs overall.

    I know its not fun to just buy a PC anymore, but if you are not building a overclock hobby machine, it really pays to look around Dell, Gateway, HP etc for prices! (And hell, even gateway sells a $1299 i860 machine with a 5850, so even at the upper end, their are still good deals to be had)
    Reply
  • mckirkus - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    It would be nice to see a table with a price to PCMark (or other benchmark) ratio.

    More categories would be nice to. Instead of grouping by price range, group by category. So for instance:

    Grandma PC
    Cheap / Fancy
    Niether of which would have discreet graphics but maybe a small SSD on the high end.

    And also cover, workstation, gaming, HTCP, etc. It feels like in an attempt to give an overview of the whole market you're forgetting about actual uses. Watch this TED video on why there are 50 types of spaghetti sauce to see what I mean... http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spagh...">http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spagh...
    Reply
  • rundll - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    This first "entry level" rigg put together here isn't actually entry level. It's way too powerful and expensive for that.

    At entry level you'd choose Athlon x2 240 which is a very powerful and capable prosessor for those things you are supposed to do at entry level.

    2 GB memory is also more than sufficient. I'm not sure how much faster an entry level rigg gets in every day internet and office use if you put there extra 2 GBs? 0%? 2%?

    The power source is also both over kill and too expensive.

    What comes to MB, The 785G is ok pick up here but once again, the 780G offers almost identical performance. I know that 785G has other advances, so this choice is understandable.

    And understandable are all of these choices made here. I could easily do exactly the same line up for me and I would reason my choices exactly the same way. But as a result I'd end up having something else than an entry level PC.

    All in all, all I'm saying here is that this now called "Entry level" starting point should actually be called "best-bang-for-the-buck level".

    You put to this "entry level" rigg an ATI 5830 graphic card and you end up with a quite capable power house.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    The consensus at AnandTech is that we wouldn't touch 2GB machines these days; Windows 7 64-bit can run on 2GB, but we felt it was far more useful to bump it up to 4GB. How much faster it ends up being really depends on how you use your PC, but I know I frequently get a lot of HDD thrashing from swapfile access if I don't have 4GB.

    As for the power supply, you have essentially two choices: get a cheaper lower efficiency PSU for less money, or get something that's better but costs http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">at least $40. This is another item that has been debated in the past, and the result is that we're all a lot more comfortable spending more money on a higher quality PSU. That will also give you plenty of options for growing the PC down the road, along with overclocking.

    As someone else commented, if you're just looking for a standard system and you don't intend to upgrade, take a serious look at Dell/HP/etc. pre-built systems. They won't be faster than these builds, but at $500 for a complete setup you're not going to get equivalent components with a DIY. What you will get are more features and higher quality (with the ability to upgrade any and all components should the need arise). The OEM cases are still vendor lock in, unfortunately.

    To whit, I've got a friend's Dell XPS 400 at my house right now with an old Pentium D 820 (2.8GHz) and it's having problems. There's little point in trying to spend money fixing it when we can build a newer, faster system for less than $500. If I could swap out the mobo and CPU, we could have a "new" system in there for less than $200, but because of the proprietary chassis that's not an option.
    Reply
  • FlyTexas - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Regarding the Dell XPS 400 system.

    You are correct that it has a BTX motherboard, and thus can't really be upgraded in that case.

    However, even if you could, what are you saving? The motherboard + CPU + memory is what costs all the money in a computer anyway.

    A basic case will run you $50 including power supply (not a uber case, but one that works just fine), and while you can move the hard drive from the XPS 400, it is now out of date compared to a modern hard drive.

    That computer is now 4+ years old, the most valuable thing there is the Windows XP licence. :) (which you're not supposed to move to a new system, but Microsoft will do it over the phone anyway if you call to activate it on a new box)

    Regarding your friend's computer, since he doesn't need a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, hard drive, etc.

    All he really needs is the case, motherboard, CPU, RAM (maybe), and he is good to go. That doesn't cost $500.

    Just my random thoughts... :)
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Actually, I could keep the RAM (2x2GB DDR2), GPU (9800 GS), PSU, and case... and really, the XPS 400 series case is quite good, and the PSU is far better than the cheap stuff you get bundled with a case.

    The HDD seems to be having problems, but again I don't know if it's truly dying or just needs a reinstall. (I was able to boot into Linux to copy off the files, but trying to boot XP gives a BSOD no matter what I try.) So, at $50/hr to work on a computer, it's probably not worth saving.

    If it were my own PC, I'd put in the time and fix the HDD, but it's not so the question quickly becomes one of fixing old vs. buying new. Their feeling is, "why spend $250 fixing this old thing [i.e. new HDD plus my time] when we can get a brand new PC for a bit more that's going to be superior?"
    Reply
  • FlyTexas - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    True enough about the RAM, assuming it isn't part of the problem. As a completely unrelated note, I've found memory to cause more problems in the past few years than anything else. 10 years ago I never had to RMA memory that I can recall, now I'm doing it maybe once a year. And I sold a LOT of computers 10 years ago.

    I have a XPS 410 myself, however no need to upgrade it because it came with a Core 2 Duo @ 2.4gHz. That machine is now my son's computer, but it used to be my main rig. Want to buy it as a "cheap repair"? ;)

    The second area that is unreliable are hard drives, however this seems less so now than 10 years ago. I generally won't use a consumer hard drive more than 4-5 years, they just weren't designed to be used much longer and I've had too many fail on me after that point. If that XPS 400 has the origional drive in it, you actually should get a speed boost by putting in a new one.

    Your comments regarding the cost to repair are spot on. I didn't know that you were charging for that work. In that case, REALLY don't bother, part it out and move on. At $50/hr, few 4 year old desktop computers are worth fixing.
    Reply
  • FlyTexas - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    I disagree on the 2GB vs. 4GB comment, at least in my experience. Had the prices not jumped in the past year, I'd agree with 4GB, but right now it costs too much.

    At home, my gaming machine and my server both have 6GB, the rest of the machines have 2GB. They all run Windows 7 64-bit.

    My wife uses a Dell Vostro 410 with an Intel Quad-Core @ 2.4GHz. She actually does use Office (Word, Excel, & Publisher), Quickbooks, Adobe Acrobat (full, not reader), Skype, etc. She has a half dozen things running in the system tray (she has a Zune, a web cam, music player, etc.).

    2GB of RAM works just fine for all that. I actually have spare DDR2 sitting on the shelf, I've been meaning to put it in, but haven't made the time. Why? It doesn't need it and wouldn't really benefit the system.

    Now I know there are cases where you need more. The server had to live with 2GB for awhile when I had a memory stick fail. I noticed that difference. I don't think my main machine needs the 6GB however, 3GB would have been fine.

    Vista was terrible using memory efficiently, Windows 7 seems to be much better about it.

    All just my opinion of course... :)
    Reply

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