Buyer's Guide - Entry Level to Mid-Range, March 2005by Jarred Walton on March 15, 2005 1:30 PM EST
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IntroductionWe like to start our Guides by explaining what the target market is, just to avoid confusion. There are numerous ways to tweak any system within a given budget, and more often than not, we hear comments about why we didn't use product X or forgot to mention feature Y. For some people, specific features and upgrades are going to be important, while others are really just interested in a decent computer that will handle the typical tasks that they are likely to perform.
The Budget sector is the low end of computer systems, naturally, and expecting a computer that only costs $500 to be fast in all areas is unrealistic. Compromises must be made, and most often, we look to drop performance and features a bit while still maintaining an acceptable level of performance. The biggest deficiency in most budget systems is their graphics support. Pre-built OEM systems from Dell, Gateway, etc. often limit the amount of upgrading that can be done; for example, by removing the graphics slot (either AGP or PCI Express X16). If you never plan on running complex graphics on your computer, it may not matter, but with hardware accelerated graphics becoming a more central component of future versions of Windows, we consider an AGP or PCI Express expansion slot to be mandatory in our recommendations.
One thing that we would like to get out of the way right now is the possibility of purchasing a pre-built system. They are rarely ideal configurations, but most of the large OEMs can offer software and hardware bundles that are difficult to match. We won't bother recommending them in our Guides, but feel free to comparison shop. One pre-built system that we would like to specifically mention is the new Apple Mac Mini. If you haven't already heard about it, you can read up on the features and performance in Anand's initial review as well as his attempts at turning the Mac Mini into a Home Theater PC / Digital Video Recorder. Starting at $500, the Mac Mini is an attractive, small design. By the time you add a display and upgrade the memory to 512MB, it will cost significantly more than our budget recommendations. Still, for a computer neophyte, it may be the best solution.
We would like to be able to put together a reasonable PC for $500, but realistically and given some of the current trends, we're going to end up at closer to $650 for this Guide. We feel the upgrades that we've made for the additional $150 are worthwhile, but if you want something cheaper, the recommendations from our last Budget Guide can be had for about $550. That said , we'll move into our actual recommendations. Prices and availability are subject to change at any time, but we try to select parts that are easily acquired just about anywhere in the world. We will also have some alternative recommendations for those looking to improve performance by spending a bit more money. Now, on with the show!