Introduction

The school year is now in full swing, and hopefully everyone is enjoying themselves. Some of you might already be in the depths of mid-terms, for which you have our condolences. If you're lucky, you already have a PC that you can use for doing homework, but parents might now find themselves looking towards the purchase of a new or second computer, in order to allow more than one person to access the Internet at the same time. What better way to fill that need than to pick up an economically priced budget PC?

Our last Buyer's Guide looked at the Mid-Range price segment, with a price range of $1250 to $1500. We split the recommendations up into office/business vs. gaming use, and we attempted to utilize the available budget to customize the system as much as possible for the intended market. We'd like to do the same thing for the budget sector, but unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot that can be done past a certain point. We'll give it a shot, though, with the goal of getting as close as possible to $500 for the non-gaming systems and $750 for the gaming configuration. If you want a bit more performance, you can look at the Mid-Range recommendations and try to downgrade some areas. Alternatively, you can take the budget recommendations and upgrade them where necessary. Either way, it should be pretty easy to combine the information from our Buyer's Guides and Price Guides to put together the type of system that you desire.

We'll be including an AMD as well as an Intel configuration for each of the recommendations. Performance and price are competitive in the budget realm, with AMD holding an overall lead at present. However, the lead is more like watching two family sedans drive down a two-lane street, the drivers going about their daily tasks without even realizing that they could be racing each other to the next stop light. If that doesn't make sense, what we're really saying is that for typical family use and basic office tasks, talking about performance really doesn't matter much. If the computer can get the job done and the user doesn't feel that it's too slow, the goal has been achieved. Price is generally a bigger concern than loading a web page one second faster.

Since the last Entry Level Guide, we've had a few changes. Nothing earth-shattering, of course, but we do have the expected price drops as well as a few new components on the market. As usual, we'll start with the selection of an appropriate platform and go from there.

Office CPU and Motherboard Recommendations
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  • artifex - Thursday, October 27, 2005 - link

    I helped my mom get a $300 eMachines desktop at Office Depot (after rebates) earlier today. It's got a Sempron 3100+, 256MB Ram, "Unichrome" shared 64M graphics but free AGP slot, 100GB hard drive, DVDRom/CD burner, a 17 inch (16 inch viewable) CRT and some Canon Pixma printer, all in the bundle. And of course, a legit copy of Win XP, home version. I'm not supporting teaching her or my dad how to use Linux, not when this cheaper machine has XP for "free."

    To me, this is entry level for office or home use. Not a gaming machine, but something the average adult person can use to solve productivity needs, do word processing, etc. If she wants to, she can upgrade it to 2GB RAM later, drop in an AGP video card, buy a DVD burner, etc. I don't expect her to do anything except maybe get me to upgrade it over time to 1GB RAM and maybe a DVD burner. After Christmas, that'll be maybe $100 extra, tops. And after all, this is a $300 machine. By the time she really needs much more, in a few years, she'll be able to buy the next OEM deal for $300-400 or whatever, and this will be a secondary machine for my dad, or yet another file/media server for me, or something. Oh, and she'll have another new monitor and printer, too. Does she need PCI-E now? No. She will get more value from buying a new system 3 or 4 years from now than you will get from spending $300-400 to upgrade yours with a faster processor, mobo, and memory.

    Oh, don't forget, the OEM, eMachines in this case, gets to pay to replace stuff for the next year. If I buy entry level parts from mail order or Fry's, I'll have a heck of a time getting someone to replace most of it after 90 days, without lots of mailing of parts at my time and expense. She is taking some of the money she saves to buy another hard drive to back up to, so there is hope she's not totally screwed even if the hard drive dies one day after the expiration, if she and my dad remember to back their junk up. (I have had a few Hitachis and Maxtors throw errors 13 months in, so I assume it will happen. The backup will be a Seagate, of course)

    So anyway, all this rambling hopefully suggests that OEM machines can be a better deal than you think.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 28, 2005 - link

    OEM systems aren't terrible, but they are lowest common denominator. I would hate to use a 256MB RAM system these days. Rebates are also something of an issue, as it can take months to get the larger rebates back, and often they'll make you jump through additional hoops - all in an effort to get you to forget (or miss the deadline for) the rebate. But yeah, a $400 PC will work well enough for many people.

    I have to say that personally, I don't touch such systems. If someone calls with a Compaq, Dell, HP, etc. $500 "special" and says they're having problems, I tell them that I don't work on such PCs. The reason for my stance is that people who purchase such cheap systems don't care about quality, they just want cheap. You "fix" a system like that for someone, and they'll come back to you next time a part breaks and lay the blame at your feet.

    My philosophy is that getting someone to understand more about the computer hardware and buy a better product will result - long term - in a person that is happier with their computer and hopefully more knowledgeable. It's my pipe dream, I know. :)
    Reply
  • Evan Lieb - Monday, October 17, 2005 - link

    Just thought I'd pop in and say great guide Jarred. Hard to disagree with any of those components save for the speaker system, which will be overkill for a lot of home/home office users. Otherwise a superb guide. You're doing them better than I did. ;) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 17, 2005 - link

    Thanks Evan!

    Good to hear from you - where you at anyway? :p

    Anyway, I like to think that anyone who doesn't want speakers will know that. It's very easy to not include them, and I also mentioned the option of free Logitech speakers with keyboard purchase. I know my office PC has some garbage $10 speakers that get the job done, and I use cheap headphones if I want "quality" (or to isolate myself).
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, October 15, 2005 - link

    Another reader email, which mentioned something I wasn't aware of. Here it is:
    ---------------------
    Congratulations on what I found to be a very good guide - I'm sure anyone in the market for a budget PC would find it to be extremely useful.

    I have just one suggested addition - my understand is that in the Sempron 64 range, the 3000+ model is the lowest one to support the Cool 'n' Quiet feature. Given that this Cool 'n' Quiet doesn't work if the CPU is overclocked, this isn't of any use for an overlocked gaming rig but may be important for those who are building a Media PC or simply would like a quiet PC.

    Thank you for your consistently high quality articles and guides!
    ---------------------
    I hadn't heard about Cool and Quiet not being on the lower end Semprons, though it would make sense. Once you're running the 90nm SOI chips at 1.6 GHz, they only consume about 25 to 30W I'd guess. Total power draw at 1.80 GHz for the 3100+ (whole system) is about 140W, but that's in a 3D intensive application with an X800 Pro GPU. The GPU looks to be using somewhere around 50 or 60W, so without the GPU you'd be well under 100W.

    I guess some people would like to have added power savings, but really we're talking about $20 per year for cutting power draw by 30W, and that's running 24/7. :)

    Regards,
    Jarred Walton
    SFF and Guide Editor
    AnandTech.com
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    I received the following email from a reader, and thought some of you might find it useful, along with my response:
    --------------
    Am in the market for a low end PC so found your http://www.anandtech.com/guides/showdoc.aspx?i=256...">latest review very
    interesting.

    Am wondering if you happened to note the capacitor mfrs on the mainboards
    you tested.

    Am asking because of cap problems http://www.badcaps.net/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=6">with even "Good Mfrs".

    FYI http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_Plague">this is the most complete listing I have found so far concerning "Bad
    Caps".
    --------------
    Hi [reader],

    No, I didn't look for capacitor brands - in fact, I don't have most of the parts listed in this article. It's a Buyer's Guide based off of what's on the market and prices, and performance results are not included for a reason. We have tested many of these components individually, but the parts are likely scattered across the AnandTech staff.

    As far as leaking capacitors, the majority of cases occurred back in the Athlon XP/P4 and earlier days. I had at least two Pentium 3 and one Athlon XP board fail due to leaking capacitors. (The last was 18 months ago, and the first was over three years ago.) A few of those boards are still out there and are only now failing, but I haven't encountered problems with any of the Athlon 64 of socket 775 boards. Gigabyte, DFI, Biostar and ASUS should be relatively safe choices. If the board were to fail within 3 years, I believe all four companies provide at least a 3 year manufacturer warranty. (Someone else may have specific details, though.)

    Regards,
    Jarred Walton
    SFF and Guide Editor
    AnandTech.com
    --------------
    Reply
  • mino - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    I'l definetely stick to 2500+/2800+ fo OC setup.

    256k IS really usefull, and I know, the benchmarks say othewise. But try doing some multitasking or any really new software titles-the newer the SW, the bigger the cachesize it is generally optimised for...
    Also low multiplier is no issue if You stick to nf4 infinity where 350MHz+ base speeds are standard.

    Other than that quality of Your BG's climbing steadily with time.

    Keep it this way and there may soon be no place to improve:)
    just kidin'...

    BTW Jared:
    what about to do a an multitasking test of the budget CPU's ? AT did las budget CPU test in april and roundup a bit before. Roundup of possible options that appeared snce (higher grade Semprons&Celerons + 2500+).

    I will list the CPU that will be nice to have tested:

    AMD
    s754: 2500+,2600+,2800+(the budget trio) & some higher Sempron grades
    s939: 3000+Sempron, 3000+A64 & 3700+SanDiego,3800+X2 for comparison

    Intel:
    s478: 310
    s775: 331,351 Cellys & 506,521,630 P4's & 820 PD

    as a GPU try something in the 6600/X700/X1300 range

    also an 2500+@2.1GHz and 310@3.2GHz to show what budget OC could bring one
    It will also show what 800FSB would give to 351 cellys and what difference 1MB cache makes.
    I believe the 3.2/256/533 vs. 3.2/256/800 vs. 3.2/1M/800 could be very interesting and also pretty unique.

    You should also mention that s478 Cellys start at $60 since there are sold big numbers o those and some good boards are available for 478 at bargain prices.

    Power consumption test should be also present since at these prices the power consumption make huge part of the TCO.
    Reply
  • mino - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    Reduced test suite would be perfectly OK here also.

    We all know it takes _much_ time to test all those configs, but at least for Semprons You would need just one 128k&one256k chip setup thanks to lower multis option :)
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    I'm actually trying to get an overclocking article put together using a Sempron 3100+ base. Maybe I should buy a 3000+ as well, to cover the 128K variant? Hmmm... about 100 more hours of benchmarks if I add the 128K, unfortunately. :( We'll see what I can manage. It might be more than a month before I can get it all finished up. Reply
  • mino - Sunday, October 16, 2005 - link

    Huh, 100+ hrs is huge..

    even so I believe that some comparison of 128k/256k 754 + 512k/1M 939 at points like:

    1.6G, 2.0G, 2.4G would be really nice and pretty sufficient to show many trends.

    The Celly 310@3.2G I was asking for is just to be able to see what 1M L2 and 1ML2+HT means for Prescott. Everything other being equal.

    Anyway, keep on track.
    Reply

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