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Basic System Builds

There's plenty of overlap between our AMD and Intel recommendations these days; the only major differences are in the choice of CPU and motherboard. As such, we're going to start there and then discuss all the common components below.

Base AMD System

AMD Budget System
Component Type Make & Model Price Rebate
CPU AMD Athlon II X2 250 $61  
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-880GM-D2H $80 ($10)
RAM Patriot 4GB 2x2GB PSD34G1333K $40 ($5)
Hard Drive Seagate 500GB ST3500418AS $40  
Optical Drive LG GH24NS50 $17  
Power Supply Antec Earthwatts EA-380D $40  
Case Antec Three Hundred $43  
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100  
Total Base System Cost $421 ($15)
Input Microsoft Keyboard and Mouse $15  
Display ASUS VW193DR Black 19" (1440x900) $110  
Complete System Cost $546 ($15)

AMD’s Athlon II X2 line of processors offers exceptional value for budget builders. The 250 model operates at an even 3GHz, and priced at just $61 it's typically a dollar or two more than the 245 model. In terms of real-world performance, the two CPUs are essentially identical, but 3GHz is a tempting psychological mark to acquire. Micro-ATX motherboards featuring the 880G chipset can offer VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs from the integrated Radeon 4250 onboard graphics. This onboard GPU is more than capable of running Windows 7’s Aero UI and can easily handle 1080p video. It’s also able to run older and lightweight games like World of Warcraft, albeit only at lowered settings. At $70 (with rebate), Gigabyte’s GA-880GM-D2H is an excellent choice for the motherboard. Biostar’s A880G+ is a slightly less expensive alternative. Both offer very similar features and choosing between them is largely a matter of personal preference. For a combined price of $131, the AMD CPU and motherboard offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Base Intel System

Intel Budget System
Component Type Make & Model Price Rebate
CPU Intel Pentium G6950 $95  
Motherboard MSI H55M-E21 $70 ($10)
RAM Patriot 4GB 2x2GB PSD34G1333K $40 ($5)
Hard Drive Seagate 500GB ST3500418AS $40  
Optical Drive LG GH24NS50 $17  
Power Supply Antec Earthwatts EA-380D $40  
Case Antec Three Hundred $43  
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100  
Total Base System Cost $445 ($15)
Input Microsoft Keyboard and Mouse $15  
Display ASUS VW193DR Black 19" (1440x900) $110  
Complete System Cost $570 ($15)

The least expensive CPU available for Intel’s LGA 1156 socket is the Pentium G6950 at $95. The MSI H55M-E21 and Biostar TH55B HD motherboards offer nearly identical features, and both are solid choices for a basic Intel build. Intel’s integrated graphics on the G6950 are far superior to Intel’s older motherboard-based integrated graphics, and are competitive with the Radeon 4250 (but note that the G6950 IGP is clocked at a slower 533MHz compared to some of the faster Arrandale chips, so the HD 4250 holds a clear lead unless you go with something like the i5-661).

Here's where we pay the Intel tax: the combined motherboard and CPU cost for our budget Intel platform checks in at $155, $25 more than the AMD system. [Ed: Prices can fluctuate wildly, and earlier in the week the difference in pricing was $50; the review was written from the perspective of a $50 difference, and while we updated the tables we have left most of the text in place. Just be aware that a swing of $25 or more over the course of a week is not unusual.] You could put that money towards a faster CPU, a discrete GPU, a larger/faster HDD/SSD, etc. The other side of the story is that the Intel platform will generally consume 10W less at idle, and the gap can be as large as 40-50W under load; if you leave your system on 24/7, you'll make up the difference in cost with power savings over the course of five years (give or take)—or as little as 1-2 years if you happen to run Folding@Home constantly. Considering what most of us pay for cell phones and broadband Internet, though, there are probably better ways to save money if you need it.

Common Components

As mentioned above, the remaining components are common to both builds. Starting with the memory, DDR3 is as cheap as it’s ever been, with $10/GB without rebate options common. With rebates, it’s possible to pay less than $10/GB – Patriot’s 2x2GB (4GB total) PSD34G1333K is currently $40 shipped with a $5 rebate, for example. With prices that low, there's really no need to consider anything less than 2x2GB RAM; likewise, there's little point in upgrading a budget system to more than 4GB unless you happen to use some applications that will actually benefit.

Hard drives with one platter at 500GB capacity can routinely be found for $40 shipped or less, and the performance differences between the major manufacturer’s mainstream (i.e. non-green, non-high performance) drives are typically only apparent in synthetic benchmarks. Currently, Seagate’s ST3500418AS is only $38 shipped. Optical drives also have very little product differentiation at the budget end, with $20 or less shipped for a DVD burner now commonplace. Patience can yield a dual layer and/or LightScribe DVD burner for less than $20, e.g. LG’s GH24NS50 is available for $17 shipped right now.

Cases are highly subjective, as different aesthetics appeal to different people. Antec’s Three Hundred is regularly available for $60 or less shipped, and right now it’s offered for $43. It features a tri-cool 120mm rear exhaust fan and a tri-cool 140mm top exhaust fan. It also has placements for two front 120mm intake fans. These fans, as well as a good cable management system, make it great for keeping a system running cool. Its downsides are that it has little to no noise dampening and it’s made of steel, so it’s heavy. For a budget build, there's no need for extra fans and the overall quality of the Three Hundred is very good.

Many builders choose the power supply as an area to cut down on total system cost, but don’t buy a cheap PSU! Besides the lower quality and potential problems down the road, efficiency is also worse so you end up paying for cheap PSUs in the long run. Antec offers its 380W Earthwatts model for $50 or less shipped, but it’s often on sale for $40 shipped, and sometimes less with a rebate. It’s 80 Plus certified and as high quality as can be commonly be found for under $50. Corsair’s new Builder Series CX430 is usually a bit cheaper, but does not receive the excellent reviews its predecessors did and is generally regarded as slightly inferior to the Antec Earthwatts 380W, but is nevertheless a viable alternative.

Including the $100 cost of Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (OEM version), the basic AMD build checks out at $421 out of pocket with $15 in mail in rebates, and the basic Intel build costs $445 with $15 in mail in rebates. If you already have a keyboard, mouse, and LCD that's all you'll need; otherwise plan on spending around $20 for a keyboard and mouse (we generally prefer the basic Logitech and Microsoft designs, but get whatever you like), and entry-level 19" LCDs start at around $110 shipped (e.g. the ASUS VW193DR). That brings the cost for a complete budget system up to $531 for the AMD build or $555 for the Intel system (after rebates).

Budget System Builder’s Guide February 2011 Expected Performance and CPU Upgrades
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  • GeorgeH - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    A GTX 460 (the most power hungry card recommended in the article) needs ~12A of 12V under a heavy gaming load. An Athlon II X2 250 (the more power hungry CPU of the two builds) needs ~4A of 12V at 100% load.

    That's 16A total for the two most power hungry items. Factor in that the EA-380D actually has two 17A 12V rails for 34A of available 12V power, and the entire system will probably never go over 60% load on the 12V rails even with a "mainstream" GPU.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Wow how far off you are. do you acutally think the GT 460 only needs 12a? I got an ocean front land in AZ i'd like to sell you. The minuim for a GT 460 is 24amp yes that's right 24amp on a 12v single rail Anything lower then that and you are basicly risking your gpu to short. When you facotry in the entire system and you are facvotoring in the total usage 12amp is not even close to enough. Reply
  • aylafan - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    The minimum for a GT 460 isn't 24A on a "single" +12V rail. You can have multiple +12V rails for a combined 24A or more, etc.

    Also, the EA-380D PSU has two +12V rails.
    +12V1 = 17A; +12V2 = 15A

    Just take the total Watts for the +12V rails and divide it by 12 to get the combined Amps on the PSU.
    336/12 = 28A

    Please, post a link of a better PSU with similar Amps and 82% or higher efficiency at this price. Otherwise, everything you have said has no real merit.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    FSP Group SAGA+ 400R 400W ATX12V Power Supply

    Wasn't that hard. Not only does it have an 80% and above efficiency rate, but it also hase higher watts and a higher 12v dual rail for around the same price.
    Reply
  • aylafan - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    FSP Group SAGA+ 400R 400W ATX12V Power Supply
    http://www.fspgroupusa.com/saga-400r/p/409.html

    You call +12V1 = 10A; +12V2 = 13A and only combined 23A better than the EA-380D PSU? You have to be joking me.

    You do know that Newegg.com has the wrong specs right? Even the photo of the PSU specs contradicts with the listed specs on their page.

    Apparently, you didn't research hard enough. You lost credibility once again...
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Do I think a GTX 460 needs only 12A of 12V? Absolutely - because I'm referencing experiments, not random values pulled from thin air:
    http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/video/display/nvi...

    Running Crysis, the 460 drew 11.7A of 12V. Running OCCT, it drew 11.2A of 12V.

    Again, educate thyself.
    Reply
  • ckryan - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Great job, Zach. I like the cut of your jib. You buying guide has some of the most sensible budget picks around. One item, the Earthwatts 380D, is my favorite budget PSU. It hits the sweet spot for a budget build. While it does eat a chunk of a budget build up, I think it's the finest budget PSU out there. You have to spend a hefty sum more to get something better. Apparently, some people haven't read Martin Kaffei's review on Anandtech.

    SteelCity1981 wrote:

    "Well that 380w Earthwatts is a cheap PSU. 17a on a single 12v rail. You can't get much cheaper then that. Good luck trying to put in a mainstream GPU in there without having to buy another PSU. I wouldn't even put in a Radeon 5670 or GT 440 let alone anything higher grade with that PSU."

    Say What?

    The Earthwatts 380w might be inexpensive, but calling it cheap is just ridiculous. It is eighty + BRONZE. It has 17a and 15a 12v rails. It is fairly quiet. It's probably as much PSU as most people need. I built a system for a friend using the 380D to power a Phenom II X3 @ 3.1Ghz AND a GTX 470. At stock clocks and voltage, the CPU and GPU loads under Furmark and Prime95 were reading under 318w AT THE WALL. Factor in the efficiency of the 380w (Read the AnandTech 380D review -- about 84%) and the system was only using about 267w. Running Prime95 and Furmark together is something that just doesn't occur under normal circumstances. Actual gaming power draw was between 220w and 280w. Again, at the wall, measured with a P3 Kill-A-Watt. Granted, you wouldn't necessarily want to run a GTX470 and a X58 platform off the 380D, but a dual- or triple core @stock? Money.

    I't doesn't come with a power cable unless you buy it in an Antec case. The spaghetti mess of connectors is difficult to wrangle. But all things considered, it's a good value at the $40 point. It's easy to find it cheaper with a combo, included in an Antec case, or on sale. I say, don't dis it ' till you've tried it. Or just understand what the hell you're talking about. Telling people about how you wouldn't want to power a "Radeon 5670 or GT 440" with this PSU just spreads more wrong information.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Really? Go show me on this picture where you see dual 12v rails? because I sure the hell couldn't see it on the sticker.

    So by saying the Earthwatts isn't cheap is like saying a Ford Fiesta isn't cheap either right? LOL There is a reason why it's marked the way it is in price, because it is cheap. Apparently you know little about psu's that or you are a fan of Earthwatts to understand that these psu's are priced this low for a reason. Any true enthusiast will tell you that these PSU's are cheap and to make an argument other wise, you'd get laughed out of the building.

    So you make an argument about the watts. Well news flash the watts isn't' nearly as important as the amps. Everyone that's truly knowledgeable about PSU's understands that the amps are the most important factor in a PSU especially when it comes to high powered hardware in the psu. Let me give you an example. A 500w psu with only 16amps on single 12v rail is actually worse then a 400w psu that carries a 24amp single 12v rail. Why? Simple. The voltage rail supplies power to the most demanding components including the processor, drives, cooling fans and graphics cards. All of these items draw a lot of current and as a result you want to make sure that you purchase a unit that supplies enough power to the +12V rail. Which clearly shows an Earthwatt psu 17amp 12v isn't truly enough amps for any decnet mainstream gpu especially if you want to upgrade to better hardware in the future, you're going to need a much better psu. Again there is a reason why Eathwatts are priced where they are.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    The picture on this page clearly shows 17A+15A of 12V:
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/3902/antec-earthwatt...

    The specs on the Antec page claim 17A+17A of 12V:
    http://www.antec.com/Believe_it/product.php?id=MjI...

    Educate thyself.
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    educate myself you are the one saying 380w are fine LOL Reply

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