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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  • 7Enigma - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    The problem is they are building a complete system. $20 here and $20 there, having a monitor, and keyboard/mouse, and suddenly you've increased the price by >10%.

    I like these builds because it allows me to say, "Well I already have an existing case/mobo/monitor/keyboard/mouse/OS, so I can look at the Budget Build but cut the cost in 1/2".

    I think most of us that build systems rarely have a completely new system from scratch to build (unless you are building for someone else). We normally keep the case for a couple builds, monitor for a couple, and personally I use the keyboard/mouse until they die. I only recently upgraded the HD from my 80gig Maxtor to a 250gig WD because of the huge size of Vista and the ever increasing size of games. So while we will probably always argue over the exact components, rarely are we going to be building a complete system like in the guides.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    I think you're splitting hairs. Both of their Budget systems are fine for gaming if you add in a discrete graphics card. And in both system descriptions they mention adding a graphics card. Reading between the lines means add a graphics card and you have a gaming rig.

    Pretty simple.
    Reply
  • frozentundra123456 - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    With prices so low, I would say to include a mid-range graphics card such as the HD4670 with any system. The 4670 uses very little power and will improve video and allow decent basic gaming for less than 100.00 additional cost. It seems it is worth this even for the lowest end system which would still cost about 500.00 with monitor and OS and no graphics card. Reply
  • Hrel - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    You can get a 640GB Hard Drive from Seagate with 32MB of cache, a 7200rpm speed and SATA connection for $60. So, 500GB or 640GB for $60? Hm, tough choice... sarcasm. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Saturday, March 21, 2009 - link

    I agree, the systems should have faster HDDs! I'd choose the WD 640 GB 7200 rpm over the Seagate for speed. The WD green power has amazingly tuned firmware and it's faster than many elder 7200 rpm dirves, but it's not a magician and is held back by its 5400 rpm.

    Just think for a moment what limits the performance of a PC under "normal" use. What happens when you get to an elder machine, even with a healthy windows? Well, if you tell it to do anything you'll be greated by a constant "crrrrrrrr" from the HDD. Not the CPU or GPU is limiting, it's the HDD! That's why going with a 5400 rpm drive is almost silly.. you give up 15 - 20% speed and gain ~3W in power consumption. For the HTPC it's alright though, as it doesn't keep you from working if you have to wait for the HDD.
    Reply
  • Hrel - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    sorry, my bad, that drive is $70 now; it was $60 dollars like week ago though. Reply
  • AntiM - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    I would say that 85% or more people could get by just fine with these machines. They are perfect for simple office machines. You could probably go even cheaper on the AMD system with an Athlon 64 X2 5600+ and 2 GB or RAM and still have plenty of horsepower for an office machine. Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    You can definitely go lower on the AMD CPU, but do you really think anyone would want to pay $67 for a 5600+ or 5600 Brisbane, when they can get a 7750 Kuma Black Edition for $7 LESS at $60. Pricing in entry space can be very strange.

    I also think dropping RAM from 4GB to 2GB is not very cost effective when you save just $17 by halving the RAM. If every penny counts I guess that that $17 could be important.
    Reply
  • AgeOfPanic - Monday, March 16, 2009 - link

    With the decoding capabilities of the current IGP chipsets why choose a Phenom processor with higher TDP over a Athlon X2 5050E? Reply
  • Penti - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - link

    A lot of people use homebrew (unlicensed) codecs for warez and their video watching. Those are usually software only or have a limited support for DXVA. Like many alternative media-portal/center software. If you don't want that flexibility there are other devices that even play warez that might fit your bill. But it's only commercial codecs that has decent hardware acceleration. You might also need the power for recording and encoding. Reply

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