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Budget System Builder’s Guide February 2011

Ed: We'd like to bid a warm welcome to Zach Throckmorton for this edition of our Buyers' Guide. As a long-time member of our forums, some of you are probably already familiar with his recommendations. Jarred edited this article, so if you have some issues with some of the text, you can blame him. However, the component choices (outside of the keyboard/mouse and LCD additions) are all from Zach. We'll look at having Zach update our midrange and high-end guides in the near future, once the dust has settled from Intel's chipset bug.

In the wake of Intel’s Cougar Point platform debacle, and with the impending release of AMD’s new Bulldozer platform, the high-end remains dominated by Intel’s LGA 1366 and, to a lesser extent, 1156 platforms. There's enough confusion going on at the high-end right now that we're going to bypass all that with this guide and focus instead on the budget sector. While there haven't been any massive changes since our last Budget Guide, there are plenty of upgrades and faster components we can now include.

The budget system price range ($500-750) continues to be dominated by AMD platforms closer to the $500 end of the spectrum and Intel at the more expensive end. One particular novelty has emerged in the last few months, however: the advent of increasingly affordable SSDs, which are now within the reach of more frugal system builders. Also, thanks to healthy competition between AMD and NVIDIA (as well as the graphics stagnation of games due largely to console porting), gamers on a budget can afford to buy a graphics card that will play even the most demanding titles on at least medium settings. If you're willing to spend a bit more money, AMD’s Thuban hex-core CPUs are now available for less than $200, giving number crunchers, video encoders, and others with computationally intensive goals incredible power at affordable prices.

This guide details specific components that can be used to assemble a basic, general-use computer based on AMD and Intel processors. Recommended upgrades are then given for both AMD and Intel CPUs, followed by upgrades for both platforms based on specific needs. While each system includes $100 for a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), it’s worth considering that free OSes such as Ubuntu Linux are viable options for many intermediate to advanced computer users.

Keep in mind that component prices fluctuate wildly and often. Retailers often offer very limited time sales. Paying attention for a few days or even weeks can help ensure you get your gear at the lowest prices possible. That said, it’s best to purchase parts in a short period of time. This is mostly so you have the opportunity to return or exchange DOA parts or components that fail shortly after assembly for a quick exchange or refund instead of having to go through the longer manufacturer’s RMA process that will likely lead to getting a refurbished part back. And with that out of the way, let's start with the basic system builds.

Basic System Builds
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  • GeorgeH - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    A GTX 460 (the most power hungry card recommended in the article) needs ~12A of 12V under a heavy gaming load. An Athlon II X2 250 (the more power hungry CPU of the two builds) needs ~4A of 12V at 100% load.

    That's 16A total for the two most power hungry items. Factor in that the EA-380D actually has two 17A 12V rails for 34A of available 12V power, and the entire system will probably never go over 60% load on the 12V rails even with a "mainstream" GPU.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Wow how far off you are. do you acutally think the GT 460 only needs 12a? I got an ocean front land in AZ i'd like to sell you. The minuim for a GT 460 is 24amp yes that's right 24amp on a 12v single rail Anything lower then that and you are basicly risking your gpu to short. When you facotry in the entire system and you are facvotoring in the total usage 12amp is not even close to enough. Reply
  • aylafan - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    The minimum for a GT 460 isn't 24A on a "single" +12V rail. You can have multiple +12V rails for a combined 24A or more, etc.

    Also, the EA-380D PSU has two +12V rails.
    +12V1 = 17A; +12V2 = 15A

    Just take the total Watts for the +12V rails and divide it by 12 to get the combined Amps on the PSU.
    336/12 = 28A

    Please, post a link of a better PSU with similar Amps and 82% or higher efficiency at this price. Otherwise, everything you have said has no real merit.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    FSP Group SAGA+ 400R 400W ATX12V Power Supply

    Wasn't that hard. Not only does it have an 80% and above efficiency rate, but it also hase higher watts and a higher 12v dual rail for around the same price.
    Reply
  • aylafan - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    FSP Group SAGA+ 400R 400W ATX12V Power Supply
    http://www.fspgroupusa.com/saga-400r/p/409.html

    You call +12V1 = 10A; +12V2 = 13A and only combined 23A better than the EA-380D PSU? You have to be joking me.

    You do know that Newegg.com has the wrong specs right? Even the photo of the PSU specs contradicts with the listed specs on their page.

    Apparently, you didn't research hard enough. You lost credibility once again...
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Do I think a GTX 460 needs only 12A of 12V? Absolutely - because I'm referencing experiments, not random values pulled from thin air:
    http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/video/display/nvi...

    Running Crysis, the 460 drew 11.7A of 12V. Running OCCT, it drew 11.2A of 12V.

    Again, educate thyself.
    Reply
  • ckryan - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Great job, Zach. I like the cut of your jib. You buying guide has some of the most sensible budget picks around. One item, the Earthwatts 380D, is my favorite budget PSU. It hits the sweet spot for a budget build. While it does eat a chunk of a budget build up, I think it's the finest budget PSU out there. You have to spend a hefty sum more to get something better. Apparently, some people haven't read Martin Kaffei's review on Anandtech.

    SteelCity1981 wrote:

    "Well that 380w Earthwatts is a cheap PSU. 17a on a single 12v rail. You can't get much cheaper then that. Good luck trying to put in a mainstream GPU in there without having to buy another PSU. I wouldn't even put in a Radeon 5670 or GT 440 let alone anything higher grade with that PSU."

    Say What?

    The Earthwatts 380w might be inexpensive, but calling it cheap is just ridiculous. It is eighty + BRONZE. It has 17a and 15a 12v rails. It is fairly quiet. It's probably as much PSU as most people need. I built a system for a friend using the 380D to power a Phenom II X3 @ 3.1Ghz AND a GTX 470. At stock clocks and voltage, the CPU and GPU loads under Furmark and Prime95 were reading under 318w AT THE WALL. Factor in the efficiency of the 380w (Read the AnandTech 380D review -- about 84%) and the system was only using about 267w. Running Prime95 and Furmark together is something that just doesn't occur under normal circumstances. Actual gaming power draw was between 220w and 280w. Again, at the wall, measured with a P3 Kill-A-Watt. Granted, you wouldn't necessarily want to run a GTX470 and a X58 platform off the 380D, but a dual- or triple core @stock? Money.

    I't doesn't come with a power cable unless you buy it in an Antec case. The spaghetti mess of connectors is difficult to wrangle. But all things considered, it's a good value at the $40 point. It's easy to find it cheaper with a combo, included in an Antec case, or on sale. I say, don't dis it ' till you've tried it. Or just understand what the hell you're talking about. Telling people about how you wouldn't want to power a "Radeon 5670 or GT 440" with this PSU just spreads more wrong information.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Really? Go show me on this picture where you see dual 12v rails? because I sure the hell couldn't see it on the sticker.

    So by saying the Earthwatts isn't cheap is like saying a Ford Fiesta isn't cheap either right? LOL There is a reason why it's marked the way it is in price, because it is cheap. Apparently you know little about psu's that or you are a fan of Earthwatts to understand that these psu's are priced this low for a reason. Any true enthusiast will tell you that these PSU's are cheap and to make an argument other wise, you'd get laughed out of the building.

    So you make an argument about the watts. Well news flash the watts isn't' nearly as important as the amps. Everyone that's truly knowledgeable about PSU's understands that the amps are the most important factor in a PSU especially when it comes to high powered hardware in the psu. Let me give you an example. A 500w psu with only 16amps on single 12v rail is actually worse then a 400w psu that carries a 24amp single 12v rail. Why? Simple. The voltage rail supplies power to the most demanding components including the processor, drives, cooling fans and graphics cards. All of these items draw a lot of current and as a result you want to make sure that you purchase a unit that supplies enough power to the +12V rail. Which clearly shows an Earthwatt psu 17amp 12v isn't truly enough amps for any decnet mainstream gpu especially if you want to upgrade to better hardware in the future, you're going to need a much better psu. Again there is a reason why Eathwatts are priced where they are.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    The picture on this page clearly shows 17A+15A of 12V:
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/3902/antec-earthwatt...

    The specs on the Antec page claim 17A+17A of 12V:
    http://www.antec.com/Believe_it/product.php?id=MjI...

    Educate thyself.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    educate myself you are the one saying 380w are fine LOL Reply

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