Introduction

Since last November AnandTech has looked at most of the components in the various system configurations you might want to purchase. This included specialty guides for Core i7 Systems at the high-end and our most recent guide for the newest CPUs in the Phenom II System Guide. The one constant in the computer market is change, and generally new product introductions bring greater value to market segments affected by the new CPU - and those downstream from the announcement.

That is certainly the case with the new AMD Phenom II, which started a midrange price war. After the Phenom II launch Intel responded quickly with Core 2 price cuts, and AMD countered with price adjustments that placed the Phenom II processors at price points where they compete very well with similarly priced Intel Core 2 processors. AMD then filled out their 45nm Phenom II line with models that extended to the upper end of the entry market, which squeezed other models in both lineups and created further price adjustments.

Now that the dust has settled for a while it is time to take another look at the entry-level computer systems. Low-end PCs have a reputation for being sub-standard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. That certainly was true in the past, but with the continuing drop in component prices, you can get a lot of PC today for your $300 to $800. About a year ago it would cost you about $700 to $750 to put together an entry system. Today you can build a similar but more powerful system for about $200 to $400 less.

We last looked at entry systems in late December with our buyers' guide for PCs under $1000. At that point prices had dropped to the point that $1000 was starting to look more midrange than entry, which is why that guide focused on cost rather than "classification". Prices have continued their slide, particularly in processors, to the point that our guide now focuses on complete PC systems for under $800.

Component classes and individual items were covered in detail in the various component guides in December. You will find those a useful reference for many of the components chosen in these system guides. This guide will take a closer look at the complete systems you can build for less than $800 these days. We have also revised the component tables with a subtotal for the basic system without speakers, I/O, display, or OS as several readers have requested. With a quick glance you can now see the cost to build a basic box which many would consider in a system upgrade. You can also see the total to build a complete system with all the peripherals needed for a balanced brand new setup.

In this guide we will be taking a look three common categories of systems you can now buy for under $800. This includes the entry-Level PCs that represent the best value for a basic box costing around $300 or a complete system for around $500. The bar is then raised with budget PCs that feature the most bang for the buck closer to $500 for the basic box and the $800 price point for a complete system.

It was a bit of surprise to find you could build very capable AMD and Intel machines, complete with keyboard, mouse, operating system, and a Full HD widescreen monitor for less than $800. These all rely on integrated graphics, but it is very easy to add a capable discrete graphics card if you require more graphics power and still end up well below $1000. In reality, dedicated gaming rigs normally begin in the midrange spectrum and entry PCs are normally the realm of integrated graphics. However, CPU prices are so low today with so much power that it would be very easy to add a $100 to $150 video card and end up with powerful graphics that can easily tackle gaming.

All of our recommendations are upgradable - even the cheapest entry boxes. You never know where your computer interest might lead, so options for future upgrades are always a good idea. The storage recommendations may seem overkill to some, but there is little reason to choose a smaller hard drive when you can buy 500GB of hard drive storage for $59 and a 1000GB (1TB) drive for just $100. Since most will have trouble filling 500GB on an entry PC we didn't choose anything larger, but you can easily double your storage to 1TB for just $40 to $50 more.

Finally, we put together basic HTPC computers to deliver video content to your home theater. HTPC builders have normally already selected a display/TV and the sound system. For that reason we did not include either the display or speakers in the basic HTPC component selections. With the current CPU and chipset power available in the entry to lower mid-range it is amazing how much video-crunching power you can put into an HTPC at such a low price.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • Wesley Fink - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    Traditional "Plate stuck on each side" heatspreaders do almost nothing to cool the ram. in fact sometimes they hold in heat and are actually worse than no heatspreader at all. Some more exotic HS designs used in more expensive RAM that is run at higher voltages sometimes do help cool the RAM.

    The OCZ is DDR2-1066 with slower timings and the 5-5-5 and faster is DDR2-800. The same 7-7-7 1066 memory often runds fine at 5-5-5 at DDR2-800. Higher speed usually means slower timings. If you can find faster RAM like DDR2-1066 at CAS 5 at a similar price then buy it.

    As I said in the article quality RAM at the same speed can be selected from any of the major memory providers. Comparing two at the same price look at highest speed combined with reasonable timings. If the two memories are the same price and the same speed then timings (and warranty support) should be your main considerations.

    We try to select reasonable choices we have personal experience in using at AT. But there are many rebates in memory right now - and they change daily. You need to be flexible if you are looking for memory that is the best value.
    Reply
  • scwtlover - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    Thanks. Do you have an opinion regarding the significance of voltage? Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    At the same speed or overclock lower voltages that actually work are always better. Higher voltage allows some incredible performance but high voltages shorten component life. If two memories are honestly rated at the same speed and timings but one is lower voltage at that speed, the low voltage is the better choice.

    There are fewer variations in memory speed, timings, and voltages than you might imagine, though. Almost every memory vendor buys memory chips on the open market. When one company stumbles onto a terrific new chip or PCB it isn't long until most of the major players have the same thing. Expertise in PCB design and SPD programming can matter in performance, but not nearly as much as the actual memory chip and binning used.
    Reply
  • scwtlover - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    I apologize for not asking my question more clearly. I understand your general point regarding lower voltages putting less stress on computer parts. I see, however, that while I can get quality 800 DDR2 RAM at 1.8 volts and CAS 5, to get quality 1066 DDR2 RAM at CAS 5, the RAM spec will be 2.0V or even higher. What considerations come into play in making this choice for an AMD system? Reply
  • erple2 - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    By "incredible performance" do you mean that are visible in benchmarks only, or in real world usage? Reply
  • scwtlover - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    After reading your praise of ASRock's 780GX board for the AMD entry-level system, I was surprised not to find it even mentioned for the AMD budget system. Currently, it's $5 less expensive than the Biostar board you do recommend. As I try to finalize components for my own new build, should I being drawing adverse conclusions about the ASRock 790GX board?
    Reply
  • MFK - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    Whats the deal with those these days?

    I got a cable box for my cable signals but I need my HTPC to act as a DVR.

    I think any HTPC should include a TIVO card. Doesn't have to be a TV tuner though!

    What would be the cheapest way to add DVR functionality to the HTPCs in the article?
    Reply
  • BernardP - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    All the suggestions are nice and well-balanced. However, monitor choices on the entry-level systems seem questionable. Yes, you have to meet the price point, but these days, it seems 22-inch monitor have become the minimum worth spending money on. Spending on a brand-new 17-inch or 19-inch monitor seems a waste, unless someone has not enough space to fit a larger monitor. Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    I agree. 22" LCDs have the sweet spot now. Even the 24"s are coming down in price. Reply
  • Spivonious - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    Why no tuner in the HTPC? Also, since the 9400 chipset handles all decoding, why use a beefy processor? Also, a 500W power supply is way overkill. 350W would be plenty and probably quieter too.
    Save $30 on the CPU and go with the E1400.

    Other than that, it looks almost exactly like the HTPC I spec'ed for myself last week, only to find out that my bonus was not very big after Uncle Sam got to it.
    Reply

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