Introduction

Low-end PCs have a reputation for being sub-standard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. However, low-end merely refers to the price, and right now companies like AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA are throwing out quality components for prices that traditionally belong with outdated or inadequate hardware. You just have to know what to look for. In this guide we will be taking a look at both the entry-level and budget gaming offerings, with comments and suggestions specifically on stability, quality of components, and - with the budget gaming systems - balancing budget and quality with overclocking and stability.

In the time since our last Budget Guide in April, we have witnessed some major changes to the hardware market that have affected our decisions. Both AMD and Intel refreshed their CPU lineups with die shrinks, simultaneously increasing performance while reducing power consumption. This of course also allowed for further price cuts in the ongoing CPU price war. Both companies are facing imminent product launches, Intel with their Penryn refresh of the Core 2 architecture and AMD with the much-delayed Phenom processor family - including the native quad-core Barcelona/K10.

NVIDIA just recently launched their second generation of DX10 hardware in the 8800 GT 512MB - or should we say, they released a refresh of the first generation that appeared a year ago. The 8800 GT 512MB is a tweaked version of the high-end 8800 GTS/GTX series built on a smaller 65nm manufacturing process. Because of the ability to produce more GPU chips on each wafer, the card comes with a lower price tag and a move to the midrange sector. Especially exciting is that this card is being priced between $200 and $250, cheaper than the 8800 GTS (320MB and 640MB) and GTX (768MB) but with performance almost on par with the $500 8800 GTX. The best part is, at this price, we've managed to create a powerhouse of a budget gaming rig for just a tad over $1000.

With Vista now approaching its first birthday, driver issues are (for the most part) no longer a problem. That means it's finally time to justify the purchase of DX10 hardware if you haven't already, right? Well, yes and no. There are still issues with Vista, ranging from SLI incompatibilities to missing soundcard drivers and the oft-rumored slowdown of performance in Vista vs. XP machines. Indeed, many users chose to revert to Windows XP after encountering stability or performance issues under Vista, while others are arguing that current DX10 titles don't justify the cost of an upgrade. However, is XP still an alternative? Although our inclination is to believe performance is still better in XP - the OS memory footprint is certainly much smaller - we are in no doubt as to the future of Windows, and our choices reflect that.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • Lunyone - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Are they kidding? This Apex case/PSU combo has got to go! I'd put in the NSK Antec Case/PSU combo with a 380w Antec Earthwatts ANY DAY over that piece of c##p! Who recommends that? It's like recommending a Rosewill/Broadway PSU (no offense) over a quality PSU. Did they actually boot these things up or was it just a paper launch? Hehehehe! Reply
  • Frumious1 - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Let's play a game: come up with the best system you can and keep the price under $600. Make sure you're including everything, like LCD, keyb, mouse, speakers. Guess what? It's damn near impossible to do if you're going to spend $50 on a PSU! I don't dispute that the cheap PSUs may fail, especially with overclocking, but I've seen a lot of lousy PSUs that are still ticking after four or five years. I've also seen plenty Antec PSUs fail within the first six months.

    If anyone knows a good way to get a quality PSU into a budget system, though, I'd love to hear it. I don't want to cut RAM, CPU, GPU, mobo, etc. any more than already done. So I'm left with spending $50 more just because cheap PSUs are going to apparently explode! Pardon me for being a sceptic. Sure, a capacitor may blow under heavy load, but the only way you're getting that sort of load is if you do some overclocking.

    I'd say that the gaming systems in this article are probably going to put out about 150W max without overclocking, and they can almost certainly do that for a long time. Sort of like my old overclocked Pentium D 920 (3.6GHz) is still chugging along with a $50 case+PSU I bought about two years ago. And I know for a fact that system is putting out more than 150W, yet it keeps running without apparent difficulties.
    Reply
  • wjl - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Right. The issue of power consumption isn't covered here at all.

    Following other tests as well, the Seasonic power supplies appear to be both cheap and efficient, tho they are at about 75% only. If you spend some 10$ more on a Silverstone PSU, you'll have about 85% efficiency, which pays back in the long run - plus helps saving the planet a bit.
    Reply
  • Zoomer - Thursday, November 15, 2007 - link

    Antec earthwatts 380w going for $30 AR at newegg. :) Reply
  • JonathanMaloney - Thursday, November 08, 2007 - link

    First of all I just want to thank those who have taken the time to comment on my first article for Anandtech. I know there were a couple of issues that had to initially be ironed out along with some existing disputes over some of the hardware selection. Hopefully I'll be able to provide answers for these choices - please forgive me if I've left any out - I will get to them eventually!

    Standard or Widescreen?
    This was bound to cause some conflicts - undoubtedly at 20" and up, the choice is pretty obvious for most - widescreen makes the most sense, but at 19"? My original selection was for the same monitor but in 4:3 - but after some discussion we felt it was best to go with the widescreen option. Having the option to display in both landscape and portrait modes was a valuable addition, and we felt this was a valid alternative.

    X2 5000+ Black Etd

    My bad on this one - originally I went for an X2 5200+ but was recommended the Black Etd with the unlocked multiplier - in my excitement(!) I overlooked the fact checking process - I did check out the AMD site along with two other reviews for it but didn't find any mention of a heatsink being required. Being thorough is the key here and I let you guys down, so I'm sorry for that.

    2Gb RAM enough for Vista?

    Hell yeah! I'm only running 2Gb at the moment and am playing COD4, Gears of War, Crysis SP demo all extremely well on my Opteron 165 / 2Gb DDR500 / 8800GT. Of course I would prefer to have 4Gb for 64-bit Vista but for a budget of roughly $1000, 2Gb RAM was the baseline - 4Gb was an expensive luxury. Sure, if you have the cash, go the 4Gb route with 64-bit Vista.

    Linux for entry-level system

    A good point here - and it should have been mentioned in the article for those looking to save another $100 - and at a price of around $500 those entry-level PCs would have looked fantastic value. Only thing here was that we were accommodating for the wider audience, and one that undoubtedly be Windows based. Don't forget most entry-level systems are configured for the everyday office or home - a domain where Linux has yet to penetrate on a large scale. (Again, Linux vs Windows can be argued till the cows come home)

    Samsung hard drives

    A valid concern here, as Samsung are generally not a big player in the HDD market - not yet at least. If they continue moving as they are in the cell phone / RAM / SSD markets, they might just contend with the likes of WD, Seagate and Hitachi. Samsung produce some very reliable hard drives, and provide some of the lowest measured acoustics of any HDD, while also having a very low power draw. It was for these reasons I went for the Spinpoint series over the more traditional offerings from WD or Seagate.

    I'm sure I'm missing something here but I'll get to it once I read over the comments again. Thanks!
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, November 13, 2007 - link

    Do the widescreens here rotate to portrait orientation? I love being able to rotate my 24" vertical to work on portrait oriented images, but I have noticed that a lot of the bedget 24" displays that have come out since I bought mine (February) do not rotate.

    Also, the guide mentioned Intel and AMD stock coolers using heatpipes. I have an E6600 and 2 Q6600 stock coolers sitting in their boxes here, as far as I can tell they are a copper core pressed into an extruded aluminum fin section with a fan clipped on top. Do higher-end processors come with better heatsinks?

    Finally, as far as Linux goes, my experience getting Ubuntu running on a few systems has been mixed. My desktop here at work (Q6600, MSI P35 Platinum, SATA optical and HDD, nVidia 7300GT, 2GB Corsair RAM) runs Ubuntu flawlessly, this system could be the poster child for everything working out of the box. My home system (E6600, Foxconn P965, SATA optical and 2 HDD, nVidia 7600GT, 2GB Corsair RAM) has been a major PITA. 6.10 ran well mostly, though there were occasional USB and sound issues and it did not like my Bluetooth keyboard. 7.04 would not run without some kernel options set, and would still freeze occasionally. 7.10 was completely unstable until I got rid of powernowd and added a few other kernel options. Then there are random issues like my MX1000 may or may not get all the buttons working each time I boot. So I would say the OS is certainly usable for common tasks (though gaming can be an issue), but the user should know they might need to tweak some things and should probably have another computer with internet access available when installing if nothing else in order to check forums and such for help in getting everything running.
    Reply
  • stmok - Saturday, November 10, 2007 - link

    I don't think it would hurt to mention Linux as an alternative if the person chooses to save $112.

    Hmmm, accommodate a wider audience?

    What does that entail? All they do is surf the web, email, maybe download a movie, music, and play an occasional Flash game or use some other Flash-based content. (Youtube works fine in Linux).

    All that is easily achieved with Linux.

    The issue arises when that much needed app needs Windows. Like Office 2007. (You can run Office 2003 with Wine).
    Reply
  • customcoms - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Glad to see even an anandtech editor is still gaming on a trusty Opteron 165. These processors are GREAT, especially since I only paid $150 for mine and its been at 2.7ghz ons tock air, UNDERVOLTED to 1.3v, since day one! Now its just time to ship my 8800GTS 320mb back to eVGA and get an 8800GT.

    One thing mentioned, but not in depth, is the overclocking ability of the cpu's. You mentioned it, but failed to point out that at 3.2ghz (which is reasonable for both AMD and Intel cpu's on air), the Intel cpu will beat amd's by up to 20% (which most everyone reading these comments knows). Also, the Intel cpu is more likely to reach that clock speed, and there isn't a plethora of knowledge on AMD AM2 overclocking since pretty much every hardcore overclocker is riding the Core 2 train right now. Which means for someone new to overclocking, the Intel platform is probably going to have better support at this point (as far as tweaking the motherboards etc.). Either system is still plenty fast, and it won't matter much unless you are benchmarking, but the Intel system gets the nod right now.
    Reply
  • piasabird - Thursday, November 08, 2007 - link

    I dont see many people using a Samsung Hard Drive in their builds on the website forums.
    Are they any good at all?
    Reply
  • Missing Ghost - Friday, November 09, 2007 - link

    Yes they are good. At same capacity/RPM, pretty much any manufacturer gives you something relatively similar. Reply

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