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The majority of my part-time, independent computer building work is spent assembling budget and midrange systems. Budget systems represent an interesting challenge in wringing as much performance as possible out of a limited amount of money. Midrange systems are, to me, more fun because of the flexibility that a larger budget offers—it's easier to tailor a rig to each buyer's particular needs. It's also great building midrange rigs because the prices on hardware are generally lower than ever, the hardware itself is absolutely more capable than ever, and software development has, at least for generalized daily use, not kept pace with hardware development. These factors all culminate in an opinion I find particularly exciting: I think it is reasonable to expect today's midrange, $1000 or so desktop PC to be more than adequate for the average user for the next five years.

Five years ago we witnessed the arrival of Intel's Conroe CPU architecture, which wrested the performance crown from AMD's Athlon 64 X2 CPUs. While the Conroe chips (and to a lesser extent, the original AMD dual-cores) are still serviceable, using them for more than basic tasks on a modern OS (read: Windows 7) with the common at the time 2GB DDR2 configuration is not an entirely painless computing experience--though a simple and inexpensive upgrade to 4GB RAM will do wonders. Even more so than the midrange PCs of 2006, I am confident that the systems outlined in this guide will remain capable of delivering an enjoyable computing experience to the average computer user until the end of 2016.

Windows 7 is clearly another "decade OS" like Windows XP was. Mainstream monitor resolutions have likely topped out at 1080p for the foreseeable future, and I simply don't see 3D monitors ever catching on at the mainstream level. Microsoft Office 2010 is no more demanding hardware-wise than Office 2007 was, and it's unlikely Office 2013 will be substantially different in this regard. As for the web, the explosion of mobile devices means content owners will either need to increase the separation of their mobile sites, or slow down the advance of what they're currently giving visitors. While increasingly powerful mobile processors mean the web's more demanding content (like Flash) will inevitably proliferate, right now, and for the near-term future, the limitations of mobile hardware will likely inhibit the web from becoming much more demanding of hardware than it is now. Further, development of graphics card technology has slowed down over the last few years and shows no signs of speeding up again anytime soon—though this may very well change with the launch of next-generation video game consoles.

Thus, right now is a good time to be in the market for a midrange DIY PC. On the Intel side of the chip, Sandy Bridge's immediate successor, Sandy Bridge E, is priced well above the midrange market segment. Ivy Bridge will likely be available for midrange buyers, though its performance increases over current Sandy Bridge CPUs represent a 'tick' in Intel's development scheme—better power consumption and higher frequencies, but likely not dramatic performance improvement. Graphics will be a healthier upgrade on IVB, but even a moderate discrete GPU will be much faster, not to mention Ivy Bridge is still almost half a year away. On the AMD side of the chip, to be candid, unless Bulldozer improves substantially with upcoming revisions and/or more capable Llano APUs are released, we don't expect AMD to bring anything particularly exciting to the midrange desktop processor segment for a while, either. Trinity is currently scheduled for Q2'2012, putting it in the same time frame as Ivy Bridge.

Over the next three pages we'll cover an $800 AMD Llano APU system aimed at casual gamers and general computer users, a $1000 Intel Core i5-2500K rig designed for enthusiast gamers who also use their PCs more intensively, and a $1200 Intel Core i7-2600K box geared towards folks who use their systems for computationally demanding tasks.

$800 AMD Llano A8-3850 System
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  • stefmalawi - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    I was quite literally just looking for this article right now (having thought that it was already posted) when it popped up. Cheers! Reply
  • trifecta88 - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    The flooding in Thailand and the tsunami in Japan have nearly tripled mechanical hard drive prices this year... to think that if you built this same build next year when factories recover you could put the extra ~100 (pre-flood 1TB price ~50) into GPU/monitor/etc or your wallet. If you are considering building a computer, you should probably dig up an old drive from another computer and use that until prices dip again. Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    Yeah, I bought a WD 500GB drive 3 months ago for $49. Today, that exact same drive is $109. Reminds me of RAM prices back in 1995. Reply
  • Flunk - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    Actually what you just described is the pricing from 2007, I bought 2 500GB 7200RPM drives back int he summer of 2007 for about $100 each.

    They didn't even have 500GB drives back in 1995.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    Comprehension fail Reply
  • twhittet - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    Well his name is Flunk Reply
  • BSMonitor - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    overpayed Reply
  • Mathieu Bourgie - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    Zach,

    Here are some things that I noticed while going through the builds. Simply trying to help here, so please don't take this the wrong way :)

    I wanted to point out that the Llano system requires an extra SATA cable: The ASUS F1A75-M PRO/CSM motherboard includes two of them and the system will need three, for the DVD Burner, SSD and HDD.

    Also, the Antecn NEO ECO 400C 400W PSU doesn't include a power cord.

    Most of us will have spares cables/power cords, but it's still good to know this.

    Speaking of the Llano system, I'm left unimpressed by it.

    First of all, why limit yourself to a Micro-ATX motherboard when you could have gone full-size ATX instead? Now, if you decide to add a dedicated video card, you won't be able to add a dedicated PCI-Express sound card, since the PCI-Express 1x slot will be blocked by the most likely double-width video card.

    The A8-3850 + ASUS F1A75-M PRO/CSM + 1866MHz 8GB G.Skill ends up costing $310

    Here's a simple alternative build that will offer much superior gaming performance, as well as the possibility to upgrade the CPU to higher-end Sandy Bridge offerings for a similar price:

    $130 Core i3-2120,
    $75 motherboard: ASRock H61M/U3S3 with USB 3.0, SATA 6.0Gbps
    $80 (less with a MIR) Radeon HD 6670
    $35 8GB DDR3 1333MHz Gskill
    Total: $320

    All of which are compatible with the rest of your suggested build.

    Power consumption? The Core i3-2100 draws about 17W less at load than the A8-3850 according to the Bench, for CPU load only and the Radeon HD 6670 has a 66W TDP according to Ryan's review on AnandTech. So roughly 50W more if you don't consider the power draw of the GPU within the A8-3850 during gaming and assume that the 6670 pulls 66W, which is unlikely. The Antec ECO NEO 400W will have no problem handling that.

    Sure, the A8-3850 will come ahead in a few multi-threaded programs, but it's not like the 3.3GHz dual-core + Hyper-Threading Core i3-2120 will be far behind, while the i3-2120 and Radeon HD 6670 will trounce the A8-3850 when it comes to gaming performance. The Core i3-2120 will also come far ahead with any program that is mostly single-threaded.

    Decide to get a more potent video card with either system and the Core i3-2120 system will still come ahead, due to its superior gaming performance when matched with a dedicated video card.

    Best of all? You can upgrade the Core i3-2120 system to a Core i5-2xxx or i7-2xxx down the road if you want to.

    SSD wise, you could also consider a Samsung 830 series 64GB, which costs $10 less, offers similar if not even better performance and reliability.

    Moving on to the $1000 Intel Core i5-2500K System:
    You can pick up a Radeon HD 6870 for only $10: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    For the A8-3850 system, you recommend the Crucial M4 64GB, because it is very reliable, but then go on to recommend an OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, one of the worst SSD when it comes to reliability, for the $1000 System? What the? Better stick with a Crucial M4 or a Samsung 830 series SSD for performance and reliability here.

    You mention adding a second 6850 for Crossfire. However, the recommend Biostar TZ68A+ motherboard second 16x PCI-Express slot is limited to 4x.

    Other than that, your recommendations are sound. Thanks for the article and your hard work on it.

    For the $1200 build, just want to point out that the Corsair A70 CPU Cooler is a whole lot cheaper at Amazon.

    Also, I'd personally go with a Crucial M4 128GB instead of the Intel 320 series. Crucial M4 SSDs offer great reliability and performance is way higher than the 320 series.

    "AMD's HD 7000 series should come out in the not-too-distant future, but we can't share any details" - Looking forward to that ;)

    My 2 cents,
    Mathieu
    Reply
  • aznofazns - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    100% agree with the alternatives you listed. Llano A8 is ill-suited to midrange systems housed in midtower cases. It's a better solution if you're looking to build a mATX or mini ITX PC in which conserving space is more important and performance is less important.

    The i3-2120 will give the A8-3850 an ass-whoopin in the majority of tasks. Media creation still favors the quad-core A8, but not by a lot. See here: http://www.anandtech.com/show/4476/amd-a83850-revi...

    Entry level HD6670 will also destroy the GPU on the A8, but it doesn't end there. Since the HD6670 has its own DDR3 (or even quad-pumped GDDR5) VRAM, you won't need to spend an extra ~$30 on the faster 1866MHz DDR3 RAM to improve graphics performance. Your average DDR3 1333 will provide plenty of bandwidth to the i3.
    Reply
  • bji - Tuesday, December 06, 2011 - link

    I think "ass-whoopin" is very overstated. It is true that the i3 is 20% - 30% faster in about 75% of Anand's benchmarks, the majority of which are single threaded or (likely) optimized specifically for Intel processors. The A8 comes out ahead on many of the multithreaded benchmarks (although by a much smaller margin than it loses by on the others).

    I don't consider this an "ass-whoopin". That would be considerably faster (50% or more) on all benchmarks. The i3 isn't even close to that.

    I have found that 20% to 30% better performance on single threaded tasks is typically not even noticeable. I have also found that for my most important workloads (parallel software compiles) more cores is the most important factor, and I believe that the most demanding applications are heavily multithreaded which makes the i3's advantage in single threaded apps less significant.

    One place where the i3 clearly shines over the A8 is gaming performance (assuming that both systems are using dedicated cards, which really isn't fair to the A8 since its integrated graphics are so good), but seriously, who even cares about gaming performance of PCs anymore? There is a reason that graphics card development has slowed: consoles drive the technical requirements of games, so better gaming performance of a PC is, for most people, completely irrelevant.

    I don't want to say that the A8 is a better chip than the i3, but I don't want to hear overblown conclusions about the i3 giving the A8 an "ass-whoppin" either. The A8 for many users can be a better chip, and for others the i3 can be better. It depends on workload and for most casual users, the differences would never be noticed anyway.
    Reply

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