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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  • mpc7488 - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Thanks for the reply. I'd like to caveat my response by saying I'm *not* trying to argue or be a jerk - I just enjoy a good hardware discussion :) I also use your guides for comparison to what I'd do for myself (midrange usually) or for my friends, coworkers, etc. (budget). I totally agree, in this price range, you're still always getting better expandability with these. However, features and performance is much greyer to my mind, and with the right deals I think an OEM with a little tinkering can be a powerful option for the non-power user, even at prices outside of the bottom range.

    Speakers: point made, I meant to include them and forgot. The X-230s are $31.25 at Newegg (free shipping).
    OEM configurations: I've found the trick with Dell is generally not to upgrade their base configurations to get the best deals. For instance, buying the DVD-R/W and speakers from Newegg saves you $38. That can get put towards a real video card, instead of the 7300LE. Upgrades will quickly inflate the price and skew the deal.

    Ok, direct comparisons:
    Budget AMD: Athlon 64 3000+, 1 GB DDR2-667, 160 GB HDD, GeForce 6150, DVD-R/W, 19” Sceptre, keyboard, mouse, X-230 speakers, Win XP Home, $749
    Dell E521: Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1 GB DDR2-533, 160 GB HDD, GeForce 6150, DVD-R/W, 19” Dell 1907FP Ultrasharp, keyboard, mouse, X-230 speakers, Win XP Home, 1 year on-site warranty, $686.25 (with burner and X-230 speakers from Newegg)

    "better expandability, performance, and features at roughly the same price"

    Expandability: Without a doubt. This is where OEMs can't compare.
    Features: $65 savings for a faster dual-core processor, better monitor, and warranty coverage. You lose DVI output (thanks yehuda) and have slightly slower memory. It's close enough though, as prices will fluctuate, I'll concede this one.
    Performance: I'd have to say the crown would go to the 3800+! More impressively for media encoding and Windows tasks than for gaming, with the weak 6150.

    Upgraded Budget AMD: Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 2 GB DDR2-533, 250 GB HDD, GeForce 7600GT 256 MB, DVD-R/W (with DVD-RAM), 19” Sceptre, keyboard, mouse, X-230 speakers, Win XP Home, $1090
    Upgraded Dell E521: Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1 GB DDR2-533, 160 GB HDD, GeForce 7900GT 256MB, DVD-R/W (with DVD-RAM), 19” Dell 1907FP Ultrasharp, keyboard, mouse, X-230 speakers, Win XP Home, 1 year on-site warranty, $875 (with burner, PCIe video card and X-230 speakers from Newegg)

    Expandability: Without a doubt. This is where OEMs can't compare.
    Features: $215 savings for a much faster video card, better monitor, and warranty coverage. You lose 1 GB of memory and HDD space.
    Performance: The 7900GT would absolutely smoke the other box in just about any game, even with less RAM. Media encoding and Windows tasks would benefit from the greater RAM of the other config.

    Obviously I am bored at work today. To each their own of course - I think OEM builds with alterations can be a powerful adversary, in price, performance and features, to self-builds in the budget price range, especially if overclocking is not a consideration, and shouldn't be relegated to the bottom of the heap. Just my $0.04.

    It'd be interesting to see how a custom build would hold up against a Dell box with upgrades, in a cheapo-gaming-and-media-machine shootout.
  • batter - Friday, November 10, 2006 - link

    Nice discussion; I always compare to dell/hp and always decide to build my own: I know what is in it, I build with future upgrades in mind, I do not use proprietory hardware. Also keep in mind that a bunch of people already have a keyboard, mouse, windows license, speakers etc and might even be able to re-use the case and or PS. With that in mind I usually come out ahead.
  • Calin - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    For the difference between the Dell and the homebuilt system (75$) you could easily buy a video card with not one but two DVI outputs. So, in features, Dell (with upgrades) would be a better deal
    (but I would build my own anyway :D )
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    You can also do:

    Upgraded Budget AMD Alternative: Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1 GB DDR2-533, 250 GB HDD, GeForce 7900GT 256 MB, DVD-R/W (with DVD-RAM), 19” Sceptre, keyboard, mouse, X-230 speakers, Win XP Home, $1109 shipped.

    Upgraded Dell (purchasing everything from Dell): Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1 GB DDR2-533, 250 GB HDD, GeForce 7300TC LE, DVD-R/W, 19” 1907FP, keyboard, mouse, 2.1 speakers, Win XP MCE2005, $759 (plus taxes). Add $240 for 7900GT = $999. You still get MS Works for "free" though.

    Once you start going online and purchasing upgrades, however, I think you have moved away from your typical Dell PC buyer. Most people either want to buy the whole system with everything they want, or else they will go to a local store to buy a system or just put the whole thing together themselves. If you actually want Dell to put together a better gaming solution -- or anything with even moderately upgraded graphics -- you basically have to move up to their XPS line. That gives you a better CPU and maybe a few other extra perks, but the price suddenly jumps up to $1289.

    As you say, you can usually do better getting the base OEM configuration and making upgrades on your own, but I'm not sure how many people really go that route.
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    I recently upgraded for under the cost of your listed upgrade, however I migrated HDDs, mouse, keyboard, monitor, and PSU. In my opinion, this would be a 'true' upgrade for a person such as myself. I could have even saved another $160 usd, if I didnt care about the onboard graphics where gaming is concerned, and unfortunately, for my wallet, I do ;)

    At last tally, I spent between $750-$800 usd, including the low-end Lian Li case (very nice BTW), eVGA 7600GT, AM2 3800+, Corsair DDR2-6400 XMS (advertised at 5-5-5-18 timings, but my motherboard typicaly detects it as 4-4-4-12, as long as I'm running it stock), and an Asrock AM2NF4G-SATA2 motherboard. I'd like to add that this motherboard is JUNK, it overclocks fine, but the system gets BSoDs regularly, whether I OC it or not. Wont be long before I make a platform upgrade, to a Conroe CPU/ ABIT motherboard . . .
  • ThelvynD - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    It's a fairly decent monitor and you can pick them up from Newegg right now for 179.99. My biggest complaint about it is the rather cheap stand it's on.
  • imaheadcase - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    That memory is now the most expensive part of a normal computer.

    Memory manufactors are making a fortune I bet on all types of memory. Not to mention off all these suckers who buy "gaming" memory. "Oh please mom i have to be the best geek on the net to have camo on my memory heatsink spreader!".

  • Wesley Fink - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Memory manufacturers make the finished dimms, and almost all of them buy memory chips on the open market from Samsung, Micron, Elpida, and other huge semi-c0nductor manufacturers, This means companies like Corsair, OCZ, Kingston, Mushkin, etc. are as much at the mercy of chip prices as buyers are. I bring this up because the chip makers themselves are where chip prices haves been rising, and that is where the questions should be directed.
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Forgot to mention, look at the latest part (sold by newegg) thats obviously jacked up in price, the 'Killer' network adapter, marketed as the 'the ultimate gaming NIC'. Somehow, I seriously doubt the card is worth $270 usd, I dont care if it shoots sparks out its behind . . .
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Yeah well, Crucial is part of Micron, and they charge more for thier memeory than alot of 'manufactuers', IF you buy direct from them. Then again, if you buy direct from Crucial, IF your memory ever goes bad, they will send you a replacement before they even recieve the bad part (atleast this is what thier reps claim over the phone).

    I myself paid $230 usd for my Corsair DDR2-6400 XMS memory about 3-4 months ago, 5-5-5-15 timings (supposedly, my system regularly detects it as 4-4-4-12 timings). At the time, I thought it was outrageous, and they also gave me a $50 rebate, which I've recieved by now. Turns out comparred to now, I actually recieved a good price ;)

    This all seems to be a trend started by the graphics companies over a year ago, offer a product that you CLAIM is a gaming part, and jack up the price. Motherboard manufactuers, and memory manufactuers just now seem to be catching on, this wont go away, until the kids stop spending mommies, and daddies money on such parts. Hopefully, this trend will go away eventually, and once these companies realize they could actually make more money from people like us who build systems for more than just themselves. *shrug* I dislike buying non branded memory, and preffer a company with a reputation for reliability, but at the same time I refuse to buy parts that have obviously been jacked up, because the manufactuer has turned greedy.

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