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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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  • DLimmer - Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - link

    Very good guide. I feel that my thoughts aligned closely with Zach's.

    I agree, Core unlocking isn't a sure thing, but the opportunity to unlock to 3 or 4 cores is very attractive and probably should be mentioned.

    Recently created my own system for storage and video transcoding using the following:

    AMD Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition (unlocked to 4 cores) = 955
    ASUS M4A87TD EVO AM3 AMD 870 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 Motherboard
    Antec TruePower New TP-650 650W 80+ Bronze
    Antec Two Hundred(v2) Black ATX Mid Tower Computer Case

    I spent a little extra on Memory and Hard drives:
    Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1333 ECC Unbuffered Memory
    WD Caviar Black 640GB 7200 RPM SATA 6.0Gb/s
    4x SAMSUNG Spinpoint F4 2TB 5400 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s

    I considered the ASUS 380 Earthwatts and the 500 Earthwatts, but chose the TruePower due to its modular design. The 500W would be a little low if I upgraded to a more powerful video card than an old one I had from a retired system.
    Reply
  • trogthefirst - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    As a long time Intel user (E2140) and after the whole SB mess i decided to go with my wallet and hit this awesome $190 965BE + MSI 870A-G54
    http://www.microcenter.com/specials/promotions/AMD...
    paired with my just arrived HD 6950 i cannot believe how a nicely priced machine from 'the other' chip maker makes way much sense! Good article but i have to go with the other dude about Toms SBM - particularly their Dec 2010 $500 SBM : now thats a killer price/performance little monster if i ever saw one!
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/build-a-pc-ove...
    Reply
  • HangFire - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Good article. Like the Delta-built P/S recommendation. I made something very similar a few months ago, but I went for a Seasonic-built Corsair 400CX (no longer available) and a closeout 550BE, that both unlocks and overclocks like a dream. I got all components on sale or at MicroCenter. This month I just added a TD/EVGA/Smith 9800GT for $49.99 delivered, a little dated for gaming but overkill for my Linux needs. The final result makes the Intel tax, well, very taxing indeed.

    However you forgot the cost of the power supply cable. It's not included with the EarthWatts. Since this is a new build, it might be too much to assume that one is lying around- just like other sites forget in their builder's guides that Windows 7 actually costs money.

    OK, that's a small niggle. Welcome aboard, Zach.
    Reply
  • HangFire - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Web update issues? Reply
  • shamans33 - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    You can save $15 by going with a 760G chipset motherboard. The integrated graphics won't be as powerful but maybe it's just for everyday task use.

    Also, the PSU can even be more budget as well...I doubt that most people would break the 200W barrier.

    Additionally, a budget build often benefits from going with a SFF case/mobo/psu. Less demanding users tend to place a larger premium on the footprint occupied by the system (and/or noise from it).

    I think there needs to be recommendations for a budget build aimed at the Mini-ITX size. A bonus is that many Mini-itx motherboards come with wifi features.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 18, 2011 - link

    We're hoping to have a guide for the mATX and mini ITX crowd in the near future. We'll look at other options for cutting down costs and power, but you'll probably lose performance on some of the builds (i.e. Brazos E-350). Reply
  • infoilrator - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - link

    The problem with smaller form factors is you lose performance per dollar and easy upgrades. Quality parts made smaller often cost more. And more to replace.
    The Sandy Bridge I3 may change that but it seems unlikely. If you know of an $500 build as good as those listed please list it here. Including wifi is an easy option.
    SOmetimes small is better and all you need is all you need. For me I like the advantages of a mid tower build. Including wifi makes sense since mostly there are only two expansion slots. Put a video card in one, and you have ONE choice.
    Reply
  • L. - Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - link

    Just sayin', but if you're going for a cheap system and you're ready to shell out 100 bucks for an SSD, you need to forget the SSD and get a real Graphics board instead, which in turn will make you buy a Corsair PSU, then to justify it all you trash the CPU, get a real phenom II, some decent RAM and hey .. you're still below 800 and you've got 50% more 3dmarks.

    Also, geez cut the crap with this ugly screen, there are 22" full Hd pannels for around 200, get a real screen, watch x264 1080p and be happy (yes this is a much more important upgrade than SSD or even the better Graphics board).

    Really, considering the usual value of information on Anandtech this builder's guide is surprisingly bad.
    Also, you may contact me if you want me to write the next one, I'm kind of interested in that stuff anyway.

    So, without optimizing and not including a windows license (we all have one already anyways, don't we ?), here's a little joke to show how much more you can get for 800 bucks.

    All on the egg:

    Antec 300 (i hate it but hey .. I don't have time to find a better alternative - and there are many) (55)
    WD Caviar Green 1 TB (yes that's much better than a samsung hdd and you don't get an ssd if you go cheap computer) (59.99)
    AOC E2243FW (they make monitors really ? anyway that's a led backlit full had 21.5" monitor) (154.99)
    Gigabyte GA-880GMA-UD2H (yay USB3, SATA6 and some decent pcie action) (89.99)
    Gigabyte GV-R6870OC (yes, I like Gigabyte and there's a reason for that, it works) (229.99)
    Corsair Builder (cheap) series CX430 (more than enough for this build although It's really cheap) (44.99)
    G.Skill 4GB ddr3-1600 (cheap choice but hey.) (47.99) - i'd definitely look further to choose a nice overclockable model rather than the first cheapest on newegg .. but hey this is just to demonstrate
    AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE (3.2ghz, 125W I don't like it that much but it's cheap and OC-able) (139.99)

    Total : 822.88
    After Mail-in rebates (as counted in your example cuz Antec300 comes @ 45) : 782.88

    And I'd bet my shirt this setup fares so much better in every situation, including movie viewing and gaming.

    Of course if you're going to overclock (which is the main interest in a cheap system) I would suggest getting a decent Corsair PSU like mine (something along the lines of HX750 - can't remember precisely).
    Reply

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