RAM

DDR3 prices seem to have bottomed out and are holding steady at around $25 for 2 x 2GB kits and $35 for 2 x 4GB kits. While it might be tempting to spend $10 more on an 8GB kit of DDR3, 4GB is more than ample for basic to moderate multitasking. If the system will be used for extensive multitasking or for applications that benefit from lots of RAM like Photoshop, you might as well spring for an 8GB kit. Both Mushkin and GSkill offer 4GB kits that are usually less than $30 shipped. While these appear to be unremarkable budget memory sticks, my testing indicates both are capable of undervolting to 1.4V (from the default 1.5V) while running at stock speeds, and both kits can be modestly overclocked at the stock 1.5V setting. Additionally, GSkill's budget 8GB kit was capable of modest overclocking (though not undervolting).

Hard drives

As alluded to earlier, prices on hard drives have risen lately in response to flooding in Thailand and other areas of southeast Asia. In my previous buyers' guides, I've recommended 500GB drives that were available at every day prices of $40 shipped. Unfortunately, $40 500GB drives are not currently available from any of the major US internet retailers. How long these elevated prices will persist is anyone's guess, but from what I can gather, the supply disruption will last at least a few more months. It's possible prices will continue to rise, but for now, it's difficult to find 500GB drives for less than $50 shipped (day to day pricing). As much as it pains me to say it, you can save a few dollars by going for smaller capacity drives. For many basic users, 160GB might be enough storage space.

SSDs

SSD prices continue to fall, and upgrading to an SSD can provide a substantial boost to overall system performance. This is especially true for boot times, application load times, and general snappiness. Crucial's newest M4 line, including the least expensive 64GB version, offers excellent performance and solid reliability at a low price. I've seen this drive for as little as $85 recently and expect it to revisit that price during upcoming holiday sales. If you don't need a lot of storage, and considering the elevated pricing on HDDs, opting for a 64GB SSD could be a great alternative.

Video cards

The AMD Radeon HD 5670 continues to dominate the low-budget GPU space. This card is capable of playing every game that's currently available, though certainly you'll need to lower the resolution and details on anything demanding. Unfortunately its cost remains similar to when I recommended it earlier this year in the previous budget buyers' guide, at about $70 for the GDDR5 model. Though the Radeon HD 5670 hasn't changed much in price, the Radeon HD 6770 has creeped downward and can now be found regularly for less than $100 (after rebate, and often with a free game). The Radeon HD 6770 is essentially a rebadged 5770, and it is capable of playing nearly every game at 1080p resolution at minimum 30fps, though more demanding titles will necessitate lowering details. Keep in mind that for light gaming at lower resolutions, AMD's Llano APUs are likely a better option than a budget CPU paired with a budget GPU, and we'll be exploring Llano more in a future buyers' guide.

Power supplies

Antec's Earthwatts 380W and Corsair's CX 430W V2 remain stalwart budget power supplies. That said, I've seen the Antec Neo Eco 400W on sale for less than $30 shipped (without rebate) a few times in the last few weeks. Compared to the Earthwatts 380W, the Neo Eco has a larger, subjectively quieter fan as well as sleeved cables. The CX 430W also features a larger fan and sleeved cables. One thing to note is that neither Antec PSU comes with a power cord—if you have dozens sitting around like many enthusiasts, this isn't a concern, but if you don't have a power cord, expect to spend at least another $5 buying one. All of these PSUs are capable of quietly and efficiently powering any mainstream single GPU computer.

Cases

One product sector that has seen a few intriguing newcomers since the previous budget buyers' guide is computer cases. Specifically, the BitFenix Merc Alpha and Fractal Design Core 1000 offer tremendous value for budget builders. Dustin recently reviewed the Merc Alpha and after getting my own hands on one, I echo his sentiments: for a $40 case, it's well built, offers excellent thermals and acoustics, and is easy to work with, aside from the expansion slot area which was frustrating to me as well. The Fractal Design Core 1000 offers, in my opinion, better build quality, though if you'll be packing a lot of higher-performance (and therefore more power hungry) components into it, you'll want to add a rear 92mm exhaust fan. However, its thermals stay well within comfortable operational ranges without an additional fan for budget to mid-range rigs, so that's not necessarily a relevant concern for this guide. One aspect of the Core 1000 that I particularly appreciate is that at nine pounds, it's much lighter than the previous budget buyers' guide's 16 pound Antec Three Hundred—it's easier to carry up a few flights of stairs and cheaper to ship.

With all of the components covered, we outline specific builds on the next page.

 

 

Motherboards and Features Recommended Budget Systems and Closing Thoughts
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  • vitaminwater - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    1st time poster, long time lurker

    a AMD x2 in this day an age?? you can get a Athlonx4 955 black editon for $120 shipped

    for a couple of bucks more you get MONSTER performance for a budget build

    just my 2cents

    keep up the good work!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    $120 is twice the cost of the Athlon X2, and at that price you could also get the Llano A8 processors or an i3-2100. You could also add a discrete GPU for the same $60 increase, or some other upgrades like a better display. Given the higher power requirements of the 955BE relative to other choices, I'm not sure it's any more sensible than an inexpensive Athlon II X2. Reply
  • jefeweiss - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    It seems like part of the problem with the comparison of the low end A4 part is that it should be compared to a system that is comparable in cost of both CPU and graphics, because you get both with the Llano parts. The cost of the Celeron plus the 5670 discrete graphics or the Athlon II plus 5670 discrete card would give you enough money to buy a much nicer Llano processor. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense to compare the Llano to the other two with discrete graphics, you would have to use integrated graphics. Part of the value proposition of the Llano is that you can game on a system and not have to buy a discrete card, or at least that was my understanding. Reply
  • Wierdo - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Yeah that was strange, are we comparing products we can buy for X price, or not? Makes no sense. Reply
  • mczak - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    The gpu of the a4 is not anywhere close to a HD 5670 however - there's a reason its gpu is called HD 6410 (not even the a8-3850 is really close to that fwiw more like HD 5570)... I guess it should be quite comparable in performance to a HD 6450, it has significantly less shader power (thanks to much lower clock) but it possibly can make up this loss with its higher memory throughput (of course not against the HD 6450 gddr5 but these aren't available anyway).
    Granted the price difference between a HD 6450 and HD 5670 is not really all that large - but the 3d performance of the A4 is going to be low enough that you can't really say it comes with both cpu and graphics but the celeron does not (yes the HD 2000 will be slower, a HD 3000 such as in the i3-2105 could however possibly challenge it).
    Reply
  • mino - Wednesday, November 09, 2011 - link

    Well, the Celeron, or any Intel for that matter, has no proper 3D drivers.

    So no it does not come with a GPU. Even a Radeon 9700 from 2002 has more "GPU" in itself.
    Reply
  • Paul Tarnowski - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Haven't yet read anything beyond the first page, but I'd say the problem in your thinking is that budget builders are going to want to spend the extra dosh. In fact, most budget builds are extremely tight. When I'm wearing my system builder hat I have to be very careful when building these things. For the price of your 955 I can get both CPU and motherboard.

    It's just not going to be much of a gaming build. Budget PCs aren't meant for gaming.
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    I think Microcenter is probably the best kept secret in CPU pricing, as they actually regularly check and try to beat Newegg pricing. For example, they are selling the G530 for $39.99 as I type this. They are also selling OEM Phenom II X4 830s for $49.99. If you need a retail model, the 840 is $10 more. That would probably be my first choice for a "budget CPU" right now unless absolute efficiency was the goal. At least you can overclock them still. Reply
  • Roland00Address - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Phenom 830 is a true phenom II x4 with 2.8 ghz, 2mb l2 cache, and 6mb l3 cache
    Phenom 840 is a rebrand athlon II x4 with 3.2 ghz, 2mb l2 cache and 0mb l3 cache.

    Agreed that microcenter is awesome.
    Reply
  • TrackSmart - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Agreed x 2. $50 for a 2.8 - 3.0 GHz quad core is the way to go (assuming you have access to a MicroCenter store. I think they advertise that deal every week. It makes me want to build a system, even though I have no need for another one, just because it's such a goo deal. And I guess that's the point. Reply

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