Ultra Budget CPUs

When keeping costs down is the primary consideration, options become far more limited. The good news is that you can still get quite a bit of performance, even when looking at CPUs priced around $75 or less. Getting a dual core processor is not yet possible in this price range, even with the lowest end Pentium D models. Those chips pack a lot of power into a cheap package, but they will also consume quite a bit more power. Any initial savings that you might get by purchasing such a CPU are going to be wiped out over the next year or two in electricity costs, so you might be better off saving money for a little longer if you are after more performance.

For those who aren't primarily concerned with performance, single core processors are still perfectly viable. We often talk about the advantages of getting a dual core processor, but the simple fact of the matter is that many people do not use their computers in ways that truly benefit from having multiple CPU cores. There are many people who will never do any video encoding, 3D rendering, or heavy multitasking. If the primary use of a computer is going to be typical office tasks, surfing the Internet, and reading and writing e-mail, just about any current CPU is going to be more than fast enough. The cheapest single core processors may be inadequate for gaming, and they might also be significantly slower when it comes to certain applications. Longevity is also going to be a concern, and running Windows Vista on an Ultra Budget computer is going to be difficult (particularly if you don't have enough RAM). If all you want is a decent computer that can run most current applications without difficulty, and you don't plan on upgrading software and applications much (if at all) over the next few years, these economical CPUs are definitely worth considering.

We're primarily going to focus on newer platforms here, but we will have some words later for potential upgrades of older platforms. Most likely, you really won't be able to "upgrade" an older platform to a faster CPU without spending more than $75 anyway, and often a new motherboard will be required. The primary contenders are going to be AMD's socket AM2 and Intel's socket 775, with the Sempron and Athlon 64 single core chips going up against Celeron D and Pentium 4. Pentium D doesn't quite make it into this category, with prices that bottom out at around $95. As we've already mentioned, however, the power requirements of the Intel NetBurst processors are significantly higher than the competition, and Intel doesn't offer any of their Core product line in this price range. Unless you're looking for some extra heating for your house, or perhaps if you don't have to pay the power bill, we would recommend staying away from the low-end Intel processors. The Pentium 4 lineup only has two chips that would qualify for this Ultra Budget price segment, the Pentium 4 511 (2.80GHz 1MB 533FSB) - $72 and the Pentium 4 524 (3.06GHz 1MB 533FSB) - $73. Obviously, the latter would be the better choice.

There are many more Celeron D CPUs that fall into the Ultra Budget category. Prices bottom out at around the $50 mark, with the difference between the slowest Celeron D 326 (2.53GHz 256K 533FSB) - $54 and the Celeron D 346 (3.06GHz 256K 533FSB) - $60 only being $6, and the cheapest Celeron D at present is actually the Celeron D 331 (2.66GHz 256K 533FSB) - $51. If you don't want to spend any more than about $55, you can still get the Celeron D 336 (2.80GHz 256K 533FSB) - $57 for a few dollars more. A more interesting option than any of these other Celeron D chips, however, would be the Celeron D 356 (3.33GHz 512K 533FSB) - $76. What makes this CPU interesting is that it uses the Intel 65nm process, which allows it to run cooler and it also allows Intel to cram in more transistors while still maintaining a budget price. That means you get 512K of cache, which helps it to be more competitive in terms of performance. You could also look for the Celeron D 347 (3.06GHz 512K 533FSB), although it only tends to be a few dollars cheaper, and the 352 is generally out of stock these days. If overclocking floats your boat, these 65nm chips should also be able to reach speeds of over 4.00GHz - not that we would really worry too much about overclocking when talking about these budget CPUs, but it can be done.

Moving over to the AMD side of things, the cheapest Athlon 64 AM2 chips cost over $75, so we'll cover them in the next category. They are still worth mentioning simply because they have the same or higher clock speeds than the Sempron 3200+ and 3400+, only with more cache. The Sempron 3200+ (1.80GHz 128K) - $61 and 3400+ (1.80GHz 256K) - $80 are cheaper, true, but in the case of the 3400+ you should just spend the extra few dollars for the added clock speed and cache of the Athlon 3500+ (2.2GHz 512K) - $84. The only other AMD AM2 offerings that actually fall into the sub $75 price bracket are the Sempron 2800+ (1.60GHz 128K) and Sempron 3000+ (1.60GHz 256K), both of which run at AMD's lowest 1.6GHz rating. These are currently priced at $50 and $58 respectively, and when you combine the lower power requirements with the lower motherboard prices of budget AM2 motherboards, either of these two processors would be a good choice for building an Ultra Budget computer system. We would still recommend spending a bit more for the 3500+, though.

One area that we won't address with specific recommendations in our Holiday 2006 Buyer's Guides is the option to get component bundles. In some cases, you can find bundles like a CPU + motherboard combo were you essentially get the motherboard for free, or at least a drastically reduced price. These are typically budget motherboards, but if you are already looking at building a budget computer, the extra features that come with a higher grade motherboard might not be necessary. You might even be able to move up from a single core processor to a dual core configuration for only a few dollars more if you find the right deal. Such specials come and go on a regular basis, which is why we don't generally list them in articles, but you can check out the Hot Deals section of our forums to see if there's anything exciting going on.

Index Entry Level CPUs


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  • Murst - Tuesday, November 28, 2006 - link

    Dude, you rock ;)

    I'll be getting this tonight. Way better than the newegg deal. Only problem is that it doesn't come with a heatsink/fan, but that can be easily fixed with minimal investment.

    ATM I'm using the Thermalright XP-120, so its not really an option here cause of its size.
  • Spacecomber - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    I haven't kept up with the availability and price differences between the socket 939 and the AM2 Athlon 64's, but it seemed to me the last time I priced these entry level processors that the socket 939 was still the better deal. Basically, you could get a full Athlon 64 3000 instead of having to use a Sempron processor for the same price.

    You also had the advantage that you weren't going to have to pay the premium that DDRII memory would cost you over regular DDR.

    I know that socket 939 is a dead-end with no further AMD support (EOL), but while the supplies last, they still seem to find a use for those whose main criteria is getting solid computing power for office applications at the lowest cost. At this point, I'd rather put the money saved into extra system memory, which will likely help with the useful life of these computers, probably more so than worrying about whether a processor upgrade will be available a few years from now (which is always a gamble).
  • JarredWalton - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    DDR2 memory and is currently priced about the same as DDR memory, if not a few dollars cheaper. Motherboards are also going to be about the same price, and a lot of the processors for socket 939 are becoming more expensive than the equivalent AM2 processors. All things being equal in price, there's really no reason to get socket 939 anymore, at least as a new system. A lot of people already have DDR memory, so the potential to use your old RAM is still there, but that's about the only reason I see to consider 939. I don't think the total price difference between 939 and AM2 would be more than $5 or $10. Reply
  • Spacecomber - Tuesday, November 28, 2006 - link

    Since it sounds like the premium of going with an AM2 system is shrinking to the point of being negligible (if still present at all), I did a quick price check through NewEgg to see how things stack up at the low end.

    I agree, there is no real difference between motherboards and memory, now, between the two systems (socket 939 and socket AM@). 6100 chipset micro-ATX boards can be found for around $60 for either socket, for example. And, picking Corsair's Value Select line for a quick comparison of DDR2-533, DDR2-667, and PC3200 DDR memory in a 2x512MB kit, the cost virtually is the same for all of these ($105-$107).

    However, at least at NewEgg, there still seems to be a small gap between what your money will buy in the way of an inexpensive socket 939 processor and a socket AM2 processor. Although NewEgg didn't have an Athlon 64 3000 (939), they did have an Athlon 64 3200 for $62 in a socket 939 version. At this price point, they only have a Sempron 64 3200 for the socket AM2. The least expensive Athlon 64 for the AM2 socket is the Athlon 64 3500 for $92. This isn't much more than the socket 939 version of the Athlon 64 3500, which sells for $84.

    So, the gap is really only at the lowest end of the processor range, where you are still faced with choosing either a socket 939 Athlon 64 or a socket AM2 Sempron. At this time, it probably does make sense to go ahead and accept the slight premium ($30) to move up to the least expensive Athlon 64 in a socket AM2 form, which will be a slightly faster clocked processor, as well.

    Presumably, even this small gap will also disappear as the socket 939 processors dry up and the availability of low end AM2 Athlon 64s increases.
  • johnsonx - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    Your price quote on the Sempron 3200+ at $77 really jumped out at me, as I purchased those a couple of weeks ago at about $63. So I checked NewEgg just now, and they're only $61. Where are you getting $77? I don't think they've been that high in months.


    Also, there's little point in discussing the Sempron 2800+ and 3000+, as they pretty well aren't available; I haven't been able to get any for over a month at least (or if I could get them, they'd cost more than the 3200+). NewEgg does have bare 2800's at only $40, but that's most likely a short term deal.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    All of the prices are linked directly to the RTPE so you can see where I got them. Looks like some of the Newegg prices are missing, unfortunately. :( Guess I'll have to edit things slightly. Reply
  • johnsonx - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    Ah, yes, I see what you mean. The RTPE shows the NewEgg price for the 3400, but not for the 3200. It also looks like the 2800+ and 3000+ availability is a little better now than they were last time I went looking for them, but the fact that NewEgg has dropped the retail 2800 altogether is telling methinks. I don't remember the last time I saw the 3000+ in stock at NewEgg either, so I'm guessing both those low-end Semprons are going the way of the Dodo.

    I agree with the ultra-budget section in general though: on the AMD side, either buy the cheapest Sempron you can get, or ante up for a real Athlon64.

    A side question though: do you know whether Cool'n'Quiet now works on all AM2 Sempron's? On Socket-754, only the 3000 and up (1.8Ghz and up) had it enabled. If it's still only on the 1.8's and up, then that makes $61 for the 3200 a better buy than a 2800 for $50 (at least to me).
  • Patrese - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    It only doesn't work on the 2800 and 3000 (1,6GHz) Semprons. And I guess they´re hard to find in the US because they´re selling really well in the parts of the world in which the ultra budget segment responds for a bigger part of the market. Here in Brazil, for instance, it's pretty easy to find one of them, and they sell really well. Reply
  • rqle - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    i said anything above midrange and above go with intel for overclocker. Til 65nm comes out for AMD, its processor max around 2.4-2.6ghz with very few going over 2.8ghz. Where hiting 3ghz with intel is a cake walk even if it $20-30 difference. Reply
  • Calin - Monday, November 27, 2006 - link

    You should assume that even with transition to 65nm, AMD's overclocking will remain most of the same - just as it happened with Intel's Pentium4. Reply

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