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Budget Office/Productivity Builds

I covered the Intel Celeron G530's capabilities last year in a previous budget buyer's guide. Succinctly, it remains the best choice for those on a very tight budget, and apparently Intel is in no hurry to release an Ivy Bridge microarchitecture-based Celeron CPU (the cheapest retail 22nm Intel CPU right now is the quad-core i5-3470 at $195, which is obviously in a different market). I also reviewed the various LGA 1155 socket chipsets last year, and H61 remains the budget chipset choice. The G530 is more than capable of smoothly and quickly performing basic office tasks like word processing, emailing, and Facebooking. It also handles more strenuous tasks like 1080p content streaming with ease. Perhaps the best thing about a budget Sandy Bridge Celeron build is that in a few years, you'll be able to drop in a much more powerful CPU like an i5 or even i7-grade chip for not much money (assuming those depreciate in value like most other processors).

One consideration worth noting for an office build is physical space consumed by the case. Gone are the days of unwieldy, 20+ pound behemoths. Most businesses, whether they're in an office building or the spare bedroom of a residence, can use all the desk space they can get, or will at least appreciate not having legroom constricted by a big box under the desk. Therefore, we're recommending a long-time favorite that is a relatively small mATX tower as well as a newer iteration of an ITX solution.

As mentioned on the first page, SSDs have dramatically decreased in price in the last year. While mechanical HDD prices have also decreased from their flooding-induced highs, they remain more expensive than they were pre-flood. This has created a situation where lower capacity SSDs are less expensive than smaller HDDs. That is, you can find SSDs for less than $50, especially if you're willing to fill out rebates, but it's difficult to find new HDDs for less than $50. Sadly many of the now cheap SSDs are not well-known for their reliability, and productivity machines need to be reliable. It's up to you whether you want to spend more on a drive with a stellar reputation for reliability, but those are what we're recommending here.

Anand recently reviewed the Intel 330 series SSDs, which carries on the tradition of Intel SSDs: not necessarily the fastest, but among the most reliable. The new 60GB model, however, is unlike most previous Intel SSDs in that it is among the cheapest of comparable models. Crucial's M4 64GB SSD also has a reputation for solid reliability. You can see in Anand's review of the 330 Series how these two different SSD models compare, performance-wise. The important thing to keep in mind is that Windows 7, Microsoft Office 2010, and a handful of other (smaller) applications can fit on an SSD as small as 40GB. A 60GB/64GB SSD is more than enough space for a lot of productivity applications and office documents. Of course, once you start adding media files, that space will disappear in a hurry, so make sure you have an idea of how much local storage you'll need before omitting a higher-capacity HDD.

For the cases, we're recommending an old favorite (Fractal Design's Core 1000) and a new small form factor that Dustin recently reviewed: the Cooler Master Elite 140. The Core 1000 is relatively small for a tower, has great thermals and acoustics, is well-built for such an inexpensive case (no finger-slicing sharp edges!), and is light—which makes moving it around in an office environment easier. The Elite 140 has an even smaller footprint, but is limited to ITX motherboards which is an issue if you need to install expansion cards. You can use regular, full-size optical drives, hard drives, and power supplies, though.

As you likely know, Windows 7 comes in a few different flavors which are compared on Microsoft's page and more thoroughly on Wikipedia. You'll need to decide whether you want or need more than Home Premium offers, but for the sake of this guide, we're including the less expensive Home Premium because it is typically sufficient for small/home offices.

Rounding out the builds we have the venerable Antec Earthwatts 380W, a budget-friendly, well-built, quiet, 80 Plus Bronze certified power supply. I've had excellent experiences with the Biostar H61MGC and Intel BOXDH61DLB3 motherboards; both are inexpensive and reliable boards. The Intel board offers USB 3.0, a nicety not always found on H61 chipset-based boards.

Mainstream (i.e. non-overclocking) RAM is mostly interchangeable these days, with companies competing mostly on price and customer service. The Corsair and Kingston modules here should serve you well, but look for good prices on other reputable manufacturers like G.Skill, Crucial, Mushkin, ADATA, Samsung, and others—and don't forget to pay attention to the specified voltage level and CAS latency; all other aspects being equal, lower is better. We've listed 1x4GB for all of the budget builds today, since all of the motherboards are limited to two DIMMs. Personally, I'd spend the $20 or so to go straight to 2x4GB, but then I'd also be more likely to spend up on most system components. If you do find you need more RAM (or you really feel the need for a dual-channel configuration), switching to two DIMMs is a simple change to make.

As for hard drives, as mentioned previously in this article, though the floodwaters in Thailand have receded, their prices remain high. Even worse, with Seagate's acquisition of Samsung's hard drive business and Western Digital's acquisition of Hitachi's hard drive arm, we're left with only two mainstream drive manufacturers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Seagate and Western Digital have lowered the length of warranties on their mainstream drives: down to two years for Western Digital and one year for Seagate. Because of this, I see no reason to recommend Seagate's mainstream hard drives at all over comparable Western Digitals unless the Seagate model is substantially cheaper. We're recommending a small 250GB drive here simply because it is cheap. Keep an eye out for sales on larger drives: $60 500GB drives are popping up on sale here and there occasionally, and $70 will often nab a 1TB drive.

Intel Celeron G530 minitower system

Component Product Price
Case Fractal Design Core 1000 $47
Power supply Antec Earthwatts 380W $39
CPU Intel Celeron G530 $45
Motherboard Biostar H61MGC $50
RAM 1 x 4GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3-1333 $20
Solid state drive Intel 330 Series 60GB $67
Hard disk drive Western Digital 250GB WD2500AAKX $60
Optical drive Samsung SH-222BB/RSBS $19
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $91
  Cost with SSD: $378
  Cost with HDD: $371

Intel Celeron G530 ITX system

Component Product Price
Case Cooler Master Elite 120 $60
Power supply Antec Earthwatts 380W $39
CPU Intel Celeron G530 $45
Motherboard Intel BOXDH61DLB3 ITX $75
RAM 1 x 4GB Kingston ValueRAM DDR3-1333 $20
Solid state drive Crucial M4 64GB $68
Hard disk drive Western Digital 250GB WD2500AAKX $60
Optical drive Lite-On IHAS124-04 $18
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $91
  Cost with SSD: $416
  Cost with HDD: $408

Outlets

It's worth noting that for a basic productivity machine, the Windows 7 license by itself accounts for a large percentage of the build's total cost. This is a nearly unavoidable cost for system builders (the only way to legally avoid it is to use a free OS like Ubuntu Linux that can work in certain productivity scenarios but is not mainstream). However, larger system manufacturers like Dell and Lenovo get Windows 7 licenses for far less than end users can, and sometimes their returned, refurbished, and scratch & dent systems in their outlets can be purchased for less than the two systems above, and modified accordingly—especially if you're willing to sell the parts you replace on the used market like our own For Sale subforum. You can also always ask for advice on our General Hardware subforum. Dell's outlet for home systems is here and their outlet for businesses is here; Lenovo has their outlet here.

If you're looking to do more than just type papers and create Powerpoint presentations—like kick back with some friends and shoot some zombies—check the next page for budget gaming systems.

Developments in the Budget Marketplace Budget Gaming Builds
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  • Draconian - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    The 250GB hard drive for $60 seems like a pretty bad deal. Newegg is selling the Seagate Barracuda 1.5TB for $80 + FS. Reply
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    Hi Draconian - Both of those are bad deals compared to pre-flood prices! I recommended the worse $/GB HDD simply because its absolute cost is lower and 250GB is typically more than sufficient for basic office and gaming builds. Spending more money on capacity you don't need is always a waste even if the higher capacity drive is a better $/GB value. Furthermore, that $60/250GB drive is a day-to-day price while the Seagate you mention is a sale price. I mention explicitly in the article to keep an eye out for sale prices on HDDs, because their pricing right now is particularly volatile. Here's hoping we'll be back to $30/500GB drives sooner than later. Best - Zach Reply
  • Esben - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    I think the places that you have chosen to save money are well thought out. For an office machine the SSD gives a much faster system, than putting the money towards faster processors. The i5-2400 I use at work with mechanical harddrive is painfully slow.

    A suggestion to the guide is to consider a B75 based motherboard, such as e.g. the Gigabyte GA-B75M-D3V ($60). It will give you native USB 3.0, SATA 6 GB/s and support for Ivy Bridge if you need a very fast workstation. I would also scrap the optical drive, since that is so rarely used. Windows installation via USB or PXE netboot, the remaining apps through ethernet/USB.

    I would choose the Samsung 830 64 GB instead of the Intel 330, as it's the least handicapped ~60 GB SSD, with high R/W speeds, and solid reputation for stability.

    I have in the past found good deals on e.g. Vostro 460, but no more. Now it makes more sense to build yourself. Next week I'm assembling my new work PC: Gigabyte B75, i5-3470, 16 GB DDR3-1600, 128 GB Samsung 830, Fractal 1000 and Antec 380D. Same price as stock Vostro 470.
    Reply
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    Hi Esben - Thanks for the kind words. I'm particularly glad that you recognize an i5 with an HDD can seem slow compared to a less powerful CPU with an SSD in many office/productivity workflows. I agree that optical drives are not always necessary; I build as many systems without an ODD as with an ODD nowadays. But IMHO any basic configuration should still include one, especially since many people do not know how to install applications via USB or a network. Plus, many people still use DVD drives to rip and burn CDs and DVDs. You or your customers know whether you'll need an ODD, and it is nice to be able to eschew that $20 from a build, but not always a possibility. I'm not sure if the ODD will ever go the way of the FDD given the pervasiveness of optical media in non-computer devices like car stereos and home theaters. The main reason I recommended the Intel SSD over the Samsung 830 is simple: cost. The 830 64GB has never been as cheap as the 330 AFAIK, and it's still more expensive right now. While it is faster than the 330, I wouldn't consider the 830 more reliable than the 330. (I consider the 830, M4, and 330 to be the most reliable consumer/mainstream SSDs.) It's also interesting to note your findings on cheap outlet desktops vs. DIY systems: they resonate with my own observations over the last few months. Regardless, I'm sure you'll be happy with the PC you're planning on building - sounds like a great system! Best - Zach Reply
  • kmmatney - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    "It's worth noting that for a basic productivity machine, the Windows 7 license by itself accounts for a large percentage of the build's total cost."

    This. You can find plenty of systems on sale for around the same price, or less, that include the OS. This includes a recent shell-shocker at NewEgg that sold out quickly. The pre-built system will have a crapper power supply, but otherwise will do the job for less money.
    Reply
  • apmon2 - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    "It's worth noting that for a basic productivity machine, the Windows 7 license by itself accounts for a large percentage of the build's total cost. This is a nearly unavoidable cost for system builders"
    With $91 the Windows license is the most expensive individual item and it constitutes nearly 1/3 of the total costs!! Not using Windows would drop you from $371 to $280, which is much more "budget", or you could get significantly better components for the same price.

    Why do you therefore not recommend Linux for budget systems? For the basic productivity system, it is imho just as (if not more) user friendly as Windows and has all of the productivity software like office already included. Installation of Ubuntu Linux is also quite a bit simpler than windows (if you choose the appropriate hardware).

    While in Linux after installation, everything just works, including firefox, thunderbird, LibreOffice and any other standard productivity software, in Windows after installation pretty much nothing works until you install all of the additional components. In my case not even the wired ethernet controller worked out of the box in Windows7 enterprise edition and I needed a second computer to download the driver and copy it onto a usb stick (as coming from Linux I hadn't expected that to fail). Then I had to install graphics drivers to get more than 640x480 resolution, install sound drivers, wireless drivers, motherboard drivers, ....

    Furthermore, Linux took up only 2.7Gb of my SSD after installation, and that is including office and all other productivity software, so I can use it quite happily on my 32Gb SSD.
    Reply
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    Hi apmon2 - I wholeheartedly agree with you that a free OS like Ubuntu makes more sense than a $90-100 Windows 7 license for a very low budget build. That said, Ubuntu is simply not mainstream, while W7 is. While you and I are savvy computer users and have no trouble using Ubuntu, many people are simply uncomfortable learning a new OS, even one as user-friendly as Ubuntu. I used to offer customers super-budget Ubuntu machines, but the response from them was mostly negative. I spent a lot of time helping people learn Linux (which helped them, but ended up eating into my bottom line - time is money). Fully half of the people I sold Ubuntu machines too eventually ended up dropping another $100 to get Windows 7 after getting frustrated with Ubuntu. Furthermore, I disagree that LibreOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office. For basic uses, it is, but for more sophisticated productivity users, it is not. For example, dozens of my own Excel macros simply don't work in LibreOffice, and this is a sentiment echoed by many of my customers and friends. Anyway, this really isn't the appropriate forum for the eternal Windows vs Linux debate - I will simply conclude by saying that there are many, many reasons to not build Linux machines for people who are not particularly computer-savvy. Best - Zach Reply
  • jwcalla - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    I've been out of the loop on these things, but how much does a MS Office license cost these days? Reply
  • bgold2007 - Monday, September 03, 2012 - link

    Great article ZT. Agree with your response to apmon2 - disagree with your computer-savvy qualification. I consider myself moderately PC-savvy (A+ years after building my own systems, some N+, lite hex programming in the dot matrix days, some cmd line, tech center support etc). I have been playing around with dual-booting Linux for years - on laptops. Due to the closed and open source issues, lots of crap with wireless support (fw-cutter horrors, anyone?).

    Nowadays I often boot to ubuntu - because it is fine for email, basic web browsing etc. So I reboot to it because that's where I was using it last.
    Nowadays, yes Ubuntu "just works" -mostly. But audio visual is NOT windows class. How many times have I been in youtube (in ubuntu) and get a "you need to install a plugin" which I attempt (nevermind ZERO info about selecting the firstr default option or the "386" option) [don't worry - NEITHER will work!] to be followed by a "cannot install - dependencies not resolved" error. Why is it harder to print many images to a page with Linux freeware than Win7?
    Why do I often get sync issues on av, esp. if I pause the (eg youtube) video?

    It is NOT because i am not "computer-savvy", it is in part due to ubuntu defects/limitations and, if solovable, because I am not a linux/Ubuntu expert.

    And although not STRICTLY within a budget article, I thought ZT could've added a comment/reminder about the W7 family packs on sale. Great way to rehab older systems and have available as backups, or split the cost with a family member and reduce the budget system cost.

    That said, it would be nice if someone build some of these systems and verified all systems go with Ubuntu as os.
    Reply
  • bigjer - Saturday, September 01, 2012 - link

    What are you using for the Sandy Bridge Reply

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