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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  • yyrkoon - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    OpenOffice also has a Windows port . . .
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    A quick look at Newegg shows the 65W models are about $5-$15 more ($10 on the 3800+). Definitely worth a look, although the X2 EE 3800+ is out of stock at a lot of places right now. As for OpenOffice, it was more an implication that you can get decent free software if you want. You can get OOo for XP and many other platforms as well. I'd rate it as very close to the same quality as MS Works, but the full MS Word is definitely better than OOo's word processor.
  • Sunrise089 - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I appreciate AT's new commitment to pumping out buyer's guides, which I continue to state are one of the most useful parts of the site for myself. Although my own PC won't be in the budget category, it's always great to have a system configuration to look at when a friend or family member asks for computer advice. I hope you guys keep up the present quick rate of releasing these.

    Since I think Midrange is up next again, if Jarred reads this I hope he considers adding a discrete fan/heatsink option to the configurations for the next guide. With all the (welcome) info on OC'ing, it seems a shame to run the stock HSF.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    The guides are a complete package, and we mentioned aftermarket HSFs in the High-End guide. :D But yes, I can put a great emphasis on that with the next midrange guide (which will move to the new "separated" format).
  • bgold2005 - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    been awhile since i built my last system. Not sure why mpc7488 emphasizes 'you even get Windows' when that's included in both (his) comparisons. Couple points/questions:

    1. I have read tomorrow (10/26) MS supposed to offer Express Coupon program to include upgrades to Vista, and that MCE with a 'SKU' will allow a free upgrade. So smart pricing and consideration might include MCE pricing, and whether an OEM MCE from Dell would include an eligible SKU or not. (yes budget systems but budget also means future-aware).

    2. I have long been intrigued by dell's online option to provide an OS disc for $ 10.
    Does anyone (eg the dell-experienced mpc7488 ) KNOW what's on this disc? eg, the retail OS
    (I doubt), an OEM OS (only) or more like a Compaq-style 'recovery disc' where you may have to reinstall ALL the original bloated sw junk, cant install cmdcons (if no access to /i386), cant slipstream etc.

    I'm not super up to date, just wanna know.

  • mpc7488 - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I emphasized Windows for the non-monitor box since at the $400 price point the O/S is about 1/4 of the price. Knocking off the cost of the O/S, you're getting a lot of hardware for the money. (Also, many people building budget systems might not be inclined to buy a copy of Windows *cough* pirate *cough*, but this route allows their conscience to be clear.)

    All of the recent Dell PCs have the recovery option already loaded on the hard drive. The $10 you pony up extra is for the O/S disk, which is OEM I believe (not positive about that).
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I'm not sure on the $10 XP CD either. I think it's supposed to be a full OEM copy of XP, but it might be a Dell branded version, meaning it could fail to work on non-Dell PCs if you want to move to a new computer in the future. The Dell recovery option is very conventient I think, with the only issue being the restoration of all the crap software. I think it took about an hour for me to remove all the stuff I didn't want on the XPS 410 system I got for review. (No XP CD was included on that one.)
  • Sunrise089 - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    I can tell you you do get a full version (OEM) on XP at least in my case. I bought a second hand dell from a business that had been bought out by another company (new company used Macs). The Dell came with a OS CD. I upgraded the PC's memory and added a DVD-RW, and eventually swapped motherboards - reinstalled just fine, no Dell splash screen or anything. Eventually I parked that PC and built my present Opteron machine - same CD works fine.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Business Dell PCs might come with different accessories than home Dell PCs. I know I worked at a company that used Dell Optiplex GX150 and later GX620 systems, and every one came with an OS CD. Sort of funny, as my understanding is the corporation had a site license anyway.
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    I'm pretty sure this is the case Jarred, a friend of mine let me check out his XP CD that came with his Dell system, on a non Dell system when XP first came out, and the error I got was 'this is not a Dell Computer . . '. However, this was a few years ago, so things could have changed, but somehow, I doubt it.

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