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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  • rundll - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Hi there, JW!

    I couldn't agree more. I think all you said actually doesn't contradict what I said. I don't question the choices made, I just ponder over the phrase "entry level"

    Could I make a guess here for you? You wouldn't disagree with me if I said that this entry level rigg is actually pretty decent runner if you put in there a good graphic card? At least that's how I see things. Subsecuently, I can't help finding me smiling internally when we are talking here about entry level.

    I guess the reason for this awkward situation is that these days the components are both powerful and cheap. At least that is if you think back more than couple of years.

    As for the article as a whole, I think it was a pretty well shaped entré for SH.
    Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Unless you are building a HTPC or something else where form-factor is important, wouldn't a standard ATX mobo be a better option. Quite apart from the very useful additional PCI and PCIe sockets the ATX board will have which will allow the PC to be used for practically anything, there is generally room for more of other assorted headers like SATA and USB for adding further drivers and whatnot internally as well (and any decent ATX mid-tower will have plenty of 3.5" and 5.25" bays for them all).

    Admittedly I haven't checked prices for several years (mid 2005 when I built my current box, actually), ATX mobos were only a bit more expensive than uATX back then and I assume the same is true today. Even if you don't use most of the extra features, those you end up using at some point easily (for me) justify the small additional cost.
    Reply
  • MatrixVPR - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    It was recently brought to my attention that there is a really good Samsung HD that is the same size, same price and double the performance! In many cases it actually out performs the Raptors (which i have...)

    Samsung HD502HJ

    I would post a link to the benchmarks but I'm not really sure if that's Kosher or not!?
    Reply
  • SeanHollister - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    As I mention to another commenter above, we were actually originally going to go for the Samsung HD502HJ, but not for the reason you suggest. Though benchmarks do show the Samsung having higher sequential read and write speeds than some contemporaries, it seems to suffer somewhat in access times and IOPS such that it's not much better (though certainly not worse) in real-world applications than the WD we chose.

    That doesn't keep me from wanting to test one for myself, though :-)
    Reply
  • jdparker520 - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    It's good to see some mention of a budget SSD (Intel X25-V), though it could really use the coverage and analysis of a full article. It's frustrating that this site only seems to cover the fastest and biggest SSDs that would almost double the cost of a reasonably configured system. What I'd like to see is a full comparison of the lower capacity drives in the 30-40GB range from the persepective of using it as a boot / application drive while storing user data on a traditional disk. This is what I'll be looking for in the next few months, but so far I haven't seen much information that would help guide my purchase. Reply
  • rivethead - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    I too, was also glad to see a mention of an SSD in the upgrades section. The time has arrived.

    Anand did cover the Kingston 40GB SSD in a recent SSD article (which is the same thing as the Intel 40GB....same hardware, same controller, and now that you can flash the Intel firmware onto the Kingston....same firmware WITH TRIM). It compares very favorably to the bigger SSDs on random reads.
    Reply
  • MadMan007 - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    On pg 3 in the last paragraph you refer to the RAM as Corsair but the recommendation is G Skill.

    Good read, the options are many and while one can always find other viable options it's nice to have things narrowed down sometimes.
    Reply
  • SeanHollister - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Thanks for catching that. We originally chose Corsair RAM, but they bumped the price of their modules $5 at the last minute. Reply
  • qwertymac93 - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    I really wish this site would take a look at samsung hard drives, they are really cheap and the new f3 line is great. the samsung f3 1tb(which i now own :P) is one of, if not THE fastest 1tb hard drive, and is silent. i run my computer with no side panel on my desk, and i cannot hear it apart from initial spin up. It absolutely destroys my 320gb Seagate from a year and a half ago(:duh:). i think 1tb is the absolute lowest any builder should go today, you spend $20-30 more for twice as much size and better performance. I had a 160gb seagate for 5 years, and never thought I'd need more, then i got a 320gb and filled it in less then a year, my new 1tb is now half full(my 320 is pulling backup duty now), YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MUCH! Reply
  • SeanHollister - Friday, February 12, 2010 - link

    Funny you should mention that: we were originally going to go with a Samsung F3 500GB HD502HJ, but the retailers with the best price ran out of stock the day before the article went live.

    While it's true that newer hard drives are faster and quieter no matter the manufacturer, when you're comparing ones from the same generation at the same price point, it's hard to see a difference in real-life performance -- at least one big enough to justify spending extra on. :-)
    Reply

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