In the recent past, we have put out buyers guides covering the midrange and high-end markets. Those are definitely easier to put together, as right now is a great time to purchase a midrange or faster computer - or at least, it's as good of the time as you're likely to see, what with the continuous release of newer products as time rolls on. One subject that we haven't looked at in several months is the budget sector, and quite a few of you have asked for advice on what to purchase. Many others have also pointed out the rising costs of memory, making it even more difficult to put together a reasonably priced computer. We hope to be able to shed some light on the topic in this buyer's guide, although the best we can do is to grit our teeth and simply recommend spending a bit more money than you would like.

Our buyer's guides are focused on putting together a complete system that fits the target market segment. We've already covered midrange ($1000-$1500) and high-end ($2000+) configurations, but unfortunately for many of us the pocketbook is going to have a far greater impact on our component choices than we would like. Today, we will tackle the budget sector, with the goal of keeping prices to around $1000 on the upgraded configurations, and getting as close as possible to $500 on the base systems. Needless to say, without making some serious compromises it is currently impossible to build a new complete computer system for $500, and we are not willing to make those compromises. Our maximum upgrade will also span the upper-budget and lower-midrange price segment, but individualization is the key: get the upgraded parts that you find useful, and don't bother with those you don't feel you need.

Especially at the budget end of the spectrum, it becomes reasonable to consider prebuilt solutions available at your local computer stores or from the larger OEMs. A quick look at Dell for instance shows that desktop systems starting at a mere $330 are available, which is quite a bit cheaper than what we will recommend today. If that seems too good to be true, sadly it is. The bare minimum system doesn't include a monitor, and it cuts down virtually every component choice possible. 512MB of RAM, a CD-RW optical drive, 80GB hard drive, integrated graphics, and the cheapest processors available (Sempron or Celeron in this case) allow them to reach their bargain basement price. By the time you make some reasonable upgrades like adding a monitor, 2x512MB of RAM, a faster CPU, and a DVD burner suddenly the price is right up there with the system configurations we will put together.

A few final points about OEM systems. You still get a lower price on the software, although that also means you get a bunch of software that you might not want. You also get a single warranty and support contact for the first year. Overclocking typically won't be an optionm though the need for it at this price point is debatable. The slightly upgraded budget OEM configurations really are worth a look, as they can save over $100 all told. Does that mean you should or shouldn't purchase an OEM system? As usual, there is no one answer that will fit every person and many will be more than satisfied with your typical budget OEM configurations. We feel that our buyer's guides offer better expandability, performance, customization, and features at roughly the same price, with the only potential drawback being that you have to know how to put together the system yourself.

We changed the format of our buyer's guides last time to focus on the overall system packages rather than going through each individual component. This allows us to be a bit more concise and avoid repeating the same things every other week - after all, how much can you really say about a hard drive? We will continue that trend with this guide as well, looking at the basic platform choices first and then moving on to accessories like the case, power supply, input devices, and display. For the most part, you should be able to mix and match components as you see fit, and certainly we will not be able to cover every single possibility. GPUs and motherboards that use the same chipsets will typically perform the same, with price, features, and overclocking potential being the differentiating factors. Overclocking is certainly a possibility within the budget price segment, although you will usually get much better results if you upgrade some of the parts, particularly the motherboard and RAM. We won't focus too heavily on overclocking in this guide, other than to mention typical estimates of what can be achieved.

With that out of the way, we will start with the base AMD recommendations, followed by the base Intel recommendations. We will then move on to the upgraded configurations before wrapping up with coverage of the accessories.

Baseline AMD Budget Platform
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Yup - corrected.
  • autoboy - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I just want to mention that the Antec NSK2400 is a good, cheaper alternative to the Silverstone lc-17 and seaconic combo you introduced in your HTPC section. The budget boards you mentioned are all mATX (non upgraded) so they would fit in the NSK2400. It comes with a high quality, quiet 380W power supply and 2 120mm fans. It makes a good budget HTPC. The Silverston lc-17 is a great case but belongs in the Midrange buyers guide.

    All you need for a budget HTPC is a good quiet case/psu (nsk2400), a single core AMD cpu (Sempron 2600+ if you are really cheap, otherwise a A64 3000+ or 3200+), and a 6150 motherboard. (plus ram, DVD and harddrive of course)

    For the upgraded configuration you can add a X2 3800+ so you can transcode, and a 7600GS for a little game action and a few more check marks on the purevideo features list. If you don't like to game on your TV, a 7300GS has the same purevideo features as the 7600GS but costs a little less.

    Lets keep the midrange guide seperate from the budget crowd.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Comment added - definitely a good choice, and I'm not sure why that never showed up in my searches at Newegg and other places. I know I was trying to keep the price closer to $100 for an HTPC case, but I kept getting nMEDIA as the only really inexpensive options.
  • HGC - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I always enjoy these guides and get good ideas from them.

    One change that's worked for me is to spring for a better case and powersupply even in a budget system, so that they will be usable for the next upgrade in 2-3 years. For example, I bought an Antec case for $60-70 a few years ago and did not want to change it when I recently upgraded. I don't think too many build-it-yourselfers would be happy with a generic case and cheap power supply year after year, even if they held up.

    Suggestion: add silent PC to the the rotation.

    Thanks guys. I look forward to the next guide.
  • rdh - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    "Putting together a true budget Intel-based system is difficult right now. Sure, it's possible, but as much as we like Core 2 Duo it simply can't fit into a budget price range. As there are no cheaper single-core Core 2 processors available yet, we wind up back in a familiar place"

    Wrong. Fry's has been selling boxed C2D 6300 and an ECS MB for $179 since the end of September. I know because I have one. Moved over my disks, AGP graphics, and DDR SDRAM and the system runs quite nicely. Basically, they throw in a MB for free. So if you already have a good AGP adapter (the board does have onboard video) with DDR SDRAM (the ECS MB also takes DDR2), your budget upgrade is $180. You can complete your move to a new MB, PCIe and DDR2 at your leisure.

  • vailr - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I agree on the idea of re-using existing DDR memory and AGP video card. The Fry's combo ECS board & E6300 deal is pretty good. Or, an ASRock 775Dual-VSTA board & E6300 CPU might be a little better quality. Unfortunately, there aren't any "good overclocking" boards for the E6300 CPU, that also allow re-using DDR memory and AGP video cards.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    As I've said in other posts, upgrading is a completely different subject from buying a complete system. If you want to get the Fry's combo, it's not bad, but then you're stuck without a PCIe X16 slot for the future. As I don't expect ATI or NVIDIA to bother with AGP cards anymore, it's a fine board for a base Core 2 Duo platform but it won't overclock much (if at all). You'd almost be better off buying the combo just to get the CPU for $15 less.

    Also, we don't bother quoting prices from short-term bargains, as they come and go while the guides stick around for a few months. If you can find a much better deal than the prices we quote, go for it, but if it's a 1-day-only affair it won't make it into the buyer's guide. That's what the comments section is for, of course. :)

    For those that are interested, here's the">Fry's ECS C2D combo information. When it expires, Fry's may or may not renew the offer or come out with something similar. Cheers!
  • MiroTheHero - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Fry's has the deal for $169. I bought the combo and put it together a week ago /it was 179 then/ using my old parts - AGP card, memory, etc. Works perfect, stable at clock speed , no any problem. It has SATA , RAID, USB 2.0 , Ethernet. The mobo has pretty good layout too.
  • bzo - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I unfortunately bought this board a few months ago and have regretted it. Overclocking support is almost non-existant because there is no option to change the HTT multiplier. You'll be lucky to overclock 5%. Memory voltage only goes to 1.9V, so most DDR2-800 memory will not work. In addition, with the current BIOS, the board is very picky about memory regardless of the speed.

    The best MATX AM2 board right now seems to be the Abit NF-M2. Has all the features of the M2NPV-VM plus has all the BIOS tweaks of a full ATX board.
  • autoboy - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I second that. I have heard nothing but problems with this line of boards from asus. Poor overclocking and very poor memory support. I don't personally have this board but I have the 939 version and it sits in my closet. It never worked right with any of my memory from any of my 5 computuers, the usb never worked right, and overclocking was non existant due to the memory voltage limit. There are better options.

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