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Introduction

Since Intel's launch of the Core 2 Duo in 2006, AMD has relied primarily upon two strategies to stay relevant as a CPU producer: competitive pricing and more cores at specific price points. While the recent launch of AMD's Bulldozer CPU architecture has for some purposes narrowed the gap between the two chipmakers, it seems AMD will continue to compete mostly on pricing for the low-end and mid-range segments of desktop CPU markets. But does the recent launch of Sandy Bridge architecture Celerons by Intel threaten AMD's reign as budget king? The possibility of increased competition at the lower end of CPU performance leads to the question, "How low can prices go?"

Fortunately for consumers the answer is arguably lower than ever before—though not necessarily with CPUs. SSDs continue to drop in price, and DDR3 prices remain very low with sales regularly hitting the less than $5/GB threshold—even without rebates. As GPU development has slowed in the past year, graphics cards are exhibiting longer lifespans; older cards are becoming less expensive but not necessarily less capable. Until the recent flooding in Thailand, hard drive prices were holding low, with 500GB drives usually available at $40 and sometimes even less; it is unclear how hard drive prices will change in the short-term.

The kind of computing experience these budget systems are capable of delivering is as important as the absolute cost of components. While enthusiasts are always interested in the latest and greatest technology, many people rely on a smartphone and/or a netbook for most of their computing needs. That is, the average user does not need a particularly powerful computer anymore to perform basic tasks like shopping online, checking email, playing games on Facebook, and producing office documents. The components discussed in this guide are all more than adequate for the average home and office user.

It's important to keep in mind that prices on these parts fluctuate wildly and rapidly. We present in this guide a wide array of products representing all of the desktop component classes—the more price alerts you set on more websites, the more likely you are to be able to score killer deals on computers for friends, relatives, or perhaps yourself. Also keep in mind that with the rise of mobile OSes such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, more people are increasingly comfortable learning a new operating system—so while all of the builds detailed in this guide include the cost of Windows 7, it's worth considering saving $100 or so by going with a user-friendly free OS like Ubuntu Linux.

All that said, the next page provides a few benchmarks comparing Intel's and AMD's $60 CPUs as well as AMD's $70 APU, which will set the tone for overall system performance. Once we've covered the performance expectations, we'll move on to the actual component recommendations.

Battle of the Budget Processors
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  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    For a long time lurker, you could have done a lot better with your first contribution. You've completely missed the point of this article. Try harder for your second. Reply
  • mhahnheuser - Friday, November 11, 2011 - link

    ...IMO very rude reponse. Maybe you should use your energy on something other than punching the keys on your keyboard. He was only pointing out that you could get much more cpu performance for relatively little extra dollars. I thought a valid point myself. Reply
  • SleepyFE - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    My friend you are thinking of the first generation Athlon, which would be a bit slow and old. For anyone not needing more cores (since you can only play one game at a time and other things are less taxing) a good idea is to look at Phenom II x2 555. I am from Slovenia (it's in Europe) and you can get it for 80€ while the athlon at 3GHz is about 65€.
    Also it is a good Idea to buy a motherboard with USB 3.0 since USB 2.0 will get real slow real fast once you get a taste of USB 3.0.
    Reply
  • antef - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Thanks for this but could you do a mid-range guide by Christmas :) I plan to build over my vacation. Can't decide if should do 8 GB of RAM or more, if I should wait for new AMD video cards, or what SSD I should get... Reply
  • Beenthere - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    antef-

    8 GB. is plenty for most folks. AMD Vid cards should be available in Jan. SSDs are still immature technology and some what unreliable and having compatibility issues. If you can afford BSODs, lost data, weekly firmware updates and RMA'ed drives, then an SSD may work for you. If not you may want to wait another six months and see if they sort the problems out better.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Woah there tiger... SSDs are not 100% reliable, but let's not get carried away. I've yet to experience a BSOD that I'd attribute to my use of SSDs (haven't been using SF-2200 stuff, though), and firmware updates are really only necessary if you're an early adopter of a specific model. I've got a Vertex, Vertex 2, a couple Intel SSDs, and several 64GB Kingstons that are all running fine. Now, they're not inexpensive so I wouldn't necessarily force one into a budget build, but for midrange builds I would definitely try to get at least a 120GB in there for the OS and apps. Reply
  • StevoLincolnite - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Never had a problem regarding system stability and SSD's.

    Had my OCZ Vertex 2 60gb drive for months. Never had a crash or RMA'd the drive, lost data... Or even updated the firmware. It just works and it's an upgrade I highly recommend to anyone.

    Currently counting 17 days of total up-time without a single reboot, crash or error even with a "buggy SSD".

    The great thing about an SSD is how much faster and responsive windows feels over a mechanical drive.
    Reply
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    I just RMA'd my one year old OCZ Vertex that just randomly died on a desktop system that saw very light use. Crossing my fingers that my replacement does not fail. A close friend of mine had that happen to him. Bought the same or similar model of OCZ, it died, got a replacement and it died too. The claimed 3% failure rate is more like 30-40% in my estimations. I think many people just don't bother to RMA due to the shipping costs, effort and system down time. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    I have an OCZ Agility (first Indilinx generation) 60GB and a OCZ Vertex 2 120GB running, alive and well to this day. The 60GB was in my desktop and got transferred to the Acer Travelmate 8172 once the Vertex 2 got affordable. Have flashed them and done one or two secure erase, but other than the Vertex 2 giving the BIOS some SMART-data grief after a cold start, no issues. Also, I have been employing a 1.8" OCZ Onyx for about 2 months in my HTPC without issues. Reply
  • geniekid - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    "SSDs are still immature technology and some what unreliable and having compatibility issues."

    That I can somewhat agree with.

    " If you can afford BSODs, lost data, weekly firmware updates and RMA'ed drives, then an SSD may work for you."

    That's definitely hyperbole. Maybe you had a bad experience, but I counter your anecdotal evidence with my own - I've been using an Intel X-25M for a year now with no firmware updates or lost data.
    Reply

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