Budget System Builder’s Guide February 2011

Ed: We'd like to bid a warm welcome to Zach Throckmorton for this edition of our Buyers' Guide. As a long-time member of our forums, some of you are probably already familiar with his recommendations. Jarred edited this article, so if you have some issues with some of the text, you can blame him. However, the component choices (outside of the keyboard/mouse and LCD additions) are all from Zach. We'll look at having Zach update our midrange and high-end guides in the near future, once the dust has settled from Intel's chipset bug.

In the wake of Intel’s Cougar Point platform debacle, and with the impending release of AMD’s new Bulldozer platform, the high-end remains dominated by Intel’s LGA 1366 and, to a lesser extent, 1156 platforms. There's enough confusion going on at the high-end right now that we're going to bypass all that with this guide and focus instead on the budget sector. While there haven't been any massive changes since our last Budget Guide, there are plenty of upgrades and faster components we can now include.

The budget system price range ($500-750) continues to be dominated by AMD platforms closer to the $500 end of the spectrum and Intel at the more expensive end. One particular novelty has emerged in the last few months, however: the advent of increasingly affordable SSDs, which are now within the reach of more frugal system builders. Also, thanks to healthy competition between AMD and NVIDIA (as well as the graphics stagnation of games due largely to console porting), gamers on a budget can afford to buy a graphics card that will play even the most demanding titles on at least medium settings. If you're willing to spend a bit more money, AMD’s Thuban hex-core CPUs are now available for less than $200, giving number crunchers, video encoders, and others with computationally intensive goals incredible power at affordable prices.

This guide details specific components that can be used to assemble a basic, general-use computer based on AMD and Intel processors. Recommended upgrades are then given for both AMD and Intel CPUs, followed by upgrades for both platforms based on specific needs. While each system includes $100 for a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), it’s worth considering that free OSes such as Ubuntu Linux are viable options for many intermediate to advanced computer users.

Keep in mind that component prices fluctuate wildly and often. Retailers often offer very limited time sales. Paying attention for a few days or even weeks can help ensure you get your gear at the lowest prices possible. That said, it’s best to purchase parts in a short period of time. This is mostly so you have the opportunity to return or exchange DOA parts or components that fail shortly after assembly for a quick exchange or refund instead of having to go through the longer manufacturer’s RMA process that will likely lead to getting a refurbished part back. And with that out of the way, let's start with the basic system builds.

Basic System Builds
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  • DLimmer - Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - link

    Very good guide. I feel that my thoughts aligned closely with Zach's.

    I agree, Core unlocking isn't a sure thing, but the opportunity to unlock to 3 or 4 cores is very attractive and probably should be mentioned.

    Recently created my own system for storage and video transcoding using the following:

    AMD Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition (unlocked to 4 cores) = 955
    ASUS M4A87TD EVO AM3 AMD 870 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 Motherboard
    Antec TruePower New TP-650 650W 80+ Bronze
    Antec Two Hundred(v2) Black ATX Mid Tower Computer Case

    I spent a little extra on Memory and Hard drives:
    Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1333 ECC Unbuffered Memory
    WD Caviar Black 640GB 7200 RPM SATA 6.0Gb/s
    4x SAMSUNG Spinpoint F4 2TB 5400 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s

    I considered the ASUS 380 Earthwatts and the 500 Earthwatts, but chose the TruePower due to its modular design. The 500W would be a little low if I upgraded to a more powerful video card than an old one I had from a retired system.
  • trogthefirst - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    As a long time Intel user (E2140) and after the whole SB mess i decided to go with my wallet and hit this awesome $190 965BE + MSI 870A-G54
    paired with my just arrived HD 6950 i cannot believe how a nicely priced machine from 'the other' chip maker makes way much sense! Good article but i have to go with the other dude about Toms SBM - particularly their Dec 2010 $500 SBM : now thats a killer price/performance little monster if i ever saw one!
  • HangFire - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Good article. Like the Delta-built P/S recommendation. I made something very similar a few months ago, but I went for a Seasonic-built Corsair 400CX (no longer available) and a closeout 550BE, that both unlocks and overclocks like a dream. I got all components on sale or at MicroCenter. This month I just added a TD/EVGA/Smith 9800GT for $49.99 delivered, a little dated for gaming but overkill for my Linux needs. The final result makes the Intel tax, well, very taxing indeed.

    However you forgot the cost of the power supply cable. It's not included with the EarthWatts. Since this is a new build, it might be too much to assume that one is lying around- just like other sites forget in their builder's guides that Windows 7 actually costs money.

    OK, that's a small niggle. Welcome aboard, Zach.
  • HangFire - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Web update issues?
  • shamans33 - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    You can save $15 by going with a 760G chipset motherboard. The integrated graphics won't be as powerful but maybe it's just for everyday task use.

    Also, the PSU can even be more budget as well...I doubt that most people would break the 200W barrier.

    Additionally, a budget build often benefits from going with a SFF case/mobo/psu. Less demanding users tend to place a larger premium on the footprint occupied by the system (and/or noise from it).

    I think there needs to be recommendations for a budget build aimed at the Mini-ITX size. A bonus is that many Mini-itx motherboards come with wifi features.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 18, 2011 - link

    We're hoping to have a guide for the mATX and mini ITX crowd in the near future. We'll look at other options for cutting down costs and power, but you'll probably lose performance on some of the builds (i.e. Brazos E-350).
  • infoilrator - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - link

    The problem with smaller form factors is you lose performance per dollar and easy upgrades. Quality parts made smaller often cost more. And more to replace.
    The Sandy Bridge I3 may change that but it seems unlikely. If you know of an $500 build as good as those listed please list it here. Including wifi is an easy option.
    SOmetimes small is better and all you need is all you need. For me I like the advantages of a mid tower build. Including wifi makes sense since mostly there are only two expansion slots. Put a video card in one, and you have ONE choice.
  • L. - Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - link

    Just sayin', but if you're going for a cheap system and you're ready to shell out 100 bucks for an SSD, you need to forget the SSD and get a real Graphics board instead, which in turn will make you buy a Corsair PSU, then to justify it all you trash the CPU, get a real phenom II, some decent RAM and hey .. you're still below 800 and you've got 50% more 3dmarks.

    Also, geez cut the crap with this ugly screen, there are 22" full Hd pannels for around 200, get a real screen, watch x264 1080p and be happy (yes this is a much more important upgrade than SSD or even the better Graphics board).

    Really, considering the usual value of information on Anandtech this builder's guide is surprisingly bad.
    Also, you may contact me if you want me to write the next one, I'm kind of interested in that stuff anyway.

    So, without optimizing and not including a windows license (we all have one already anyways, don't we ?), here's a little joke to show how much more you can get for 800 bucks.

    All on the egg:

    Antec 300 (i hate it but hey .. I don't have time to find a better alternative - and there are many) (55)
    WD Caviar Green 1 TB (yes that's much better than a samsung hdd and you don't get an ssd if you go cheap computer) (59.99)
    AOC E2243FW (they make monitors really ? anyway that's a led backlit full had 21.5" monitor) (154.99)
    Gigabyte GA-880GMA-UD2H (yay USB3, SATA6 and some decent pcie action) (89.99)
    Gigabyte GV-R6870OC (yes, I like Gigabyte and there's a reason for that, it works) (229.99)
    Corsair Builder (cheap) series CX430 (more than enough for this build although It's really cheap) (44.99)
    G.Skill 4GB ddr3-1600 (cheap choice but hey.) (47.99) - i'd definitely look further to choose a nice overclockable model rather than the first cheapest on newegg .. but hey this is just to demonstrate
    AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE (3.2ghz, 125W I don't like it that much but it's cheap and OC-able) (139.99)

    Total : 822.88
    After Mail-in rebates (as counted in your example cuz Antec300 comes @ 45) : 782.88

    And I'd bet my shirt this setup fares so much better in every situation, including movie viewing and gaming.

    Of course if you're going to overclock (which is the main interest in a cheap system) I would suggest getting a decent Corsair PSU like mine (something along the lines of HX750 - can't remember precisely).

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