Budget System Builder’s Guide February 2011

Ed: We'd like to bid a warm welcome to Zach Throckmorton for this edition of our Buyers' Guide. As a long-time member of our forums, some of you are probably already familiar with his recommendations. Jarred edited this article, so if you have some issues with some of the text, you can blame him. However, the component choices (outside of the keyboard/mouse and LCD additions) are all from Zach. We'll look at having Zach update our midrange and high-end guides in the near future, once the dust has settled from Intel's chipset bug.

In the wake of Intel’s Cougar Point platform debacle, and with the impending release of AMD’s new Bulldozer platform, the high-end remains dominated by Intel’s LGA 1366 and, to a lesser extent, 1156 platforms. There's enough confusion going on at the high-end right now that we're going to bypass all that with this guide and focus instead on the budget sector. While there haven't been any massive changes since our last Budget Guide, there are plenty of upgrades and faster components we can now include.

The budget system price range ($500-750) continues to be dominated by AMD platforms closer to the $500 end of the spectrum and Intel at the more expensive end. One particular novelty has emerged in the last few months, however: the advent of increasingly affordable SSDs, which are now within the reach of more frugal system builders. Also, thanks to healthy competition between AMD and NVIDIA (as well as the graphics stagnation of games due largely to console porting), gamers on a budget can afford to buy a graphics card that will play even the most demanding titles on at least medium settings. If you're willing to spend a bit more money, AMD’s Thuban hex-core CPUs are now available for less than $200, giving number crunchers, video encoders, and others with computationally intensive goals incredible power at affordable prices.

This guide details specific components that can be used to assemble a basic, general-use computer based on AMD and Intel processors. Recommended upgrades are then given for both AMD and Intel CPUs, followed by upgrades for both platforms based on specific needs. While each system includes $100 for a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), it’s worth considering that free OSes such as Ubuntu Linux are viable options for many intermediate to advanced computer users.

Keep in mind that component prices fluctuate wildly and often. Retailers often offer very limited time sales. Paying attention for a few days or even weeks can help ensure you get your gear at the lowest prices possible. That said, it’s best to purchase parts in a short period of time. This is mostly so you have the opportunity to return or exchange DOA parts or components that fail shortly after assembly for a quick exchange or refund instead of having to go through the longer manufacturer’s RMA process that will likely lead to getting a refurbished part back. And with that out of the way, let's start with the basic system builds.

Basic System Builds
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  • dudeofdur - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    yay. too bad i already bought a sb build. moniter looks good
  • Jovec - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    No speakers? The monitor doesn't include speakers.

    The power supply doesn't include a power cord. For many of us, we have a couple extra to use. If you don't have one, it will add another $10 or so with tax/shipping.

    The "AMD Upgraded Budget System" should probably use the 500w PS recommended earlier. The $380 should handle a 640 and 5770, but the extra headroom is nice.
  • Rick83 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    actually, headroom on a power supply is to be avoided - maximum efficiency is usually hit around 80% load. I'd be surprised if a 640/5770 system would exceed 300 Watt by very much during even the most extreme load.
    Plus, a good power supply will go to eleven for short periods without having any issues.
    I firmly believe in getting the smallest power supply I can get away with.
  • Jovec - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Headroom for future expansion, upgrades, and overclocking. The efficiency differences you are talking about are only 2-3% when talking about 380w@80% load with ~88% efficiency versus 500W@60% load with 85% efficiency and might add up to a couple dollars a year difference to operate.

    I'm in the camp that thinks most of us run more PSU wattage than we need, but the 380w PSU just doesn't make sense for the upgraded build. For example, the article mentions both the 5850 and 460 which are both dual 6-pin cards. These or their modern equivalents are conceivable upgrades in the future, and the cost of replacing the 380w due to it's single 6-pin PCIe power connector more that outweigh any efficiency savings (dual molex to 6-pin PCIe adapters might work I suppose). The article also mentions the potential for overclocking, which would put a further strain on a 380w PSU.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    As a point of reference, I've got an i7-965, 12GB DDR3, HD 5850 CrossFire, and two 120GB SSDs in my main system these days. I'm running all of that off of a whopping 450W PSU: Thermaltake Litepower, 80 Plus Bronze certified.

    Idle power for the system sits at around 140W; that's power measured at the outlet, so accounting for ~83% efficiency the components are using about 116W. Under load playing games, I haven't ever seen a value above 400W; usually it sits around 350-380W (300-325W PSU load). So even with relatively high-end components, my setup still isn't coming anywhere near the 450W limit of the PSU.

    I'd say the only reason to move up from the 380W recommended in the guide is if you're planning on CrossFire or SLI, plus some pretty serious overclocking. At stock, it takes some pretty beefy CPU+GPU setups to break 350W -- even a GTX 460 won't get there, though the 470 and 480 would probably be toeing the line.

    Of course, replacing a PSU down the road is a pain in the butt (only a mobo replacement is worse!), so for a minor price difference of only $15 or so it's probably a good idea. I'll mention as much in the conclusion.
  • awaken688 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    I agree that the efficiency savings isn't a big deal, but I'm also with Jarred on the size. I'm running a 460 GTX 1GB OC'd with a Phenom II 940 which is a 130W part and my system under max load (game at maxed settings) hits right around 300W at the wall and idles in the 125ish range. As far as the 2 6pins go, you can use a molex and it will be okay if your rail and wiring can handle it. I am using the Corsair 400CX and it has no issues at all. (only has 1 6pin as well)

    If you are buying with the thoughts of Crossfire or a super power hungry GPU upgrade later, then I definitely would suggest bumping it up to a 500-550W part. But if you are truly a budget builder, the 380 should be a solid choice.
  • MadAd - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    actually a (decent brand) psu power efficiency curve peaks around half its rated value, not 80%- the 80% rating seen on the better ones is something else
  • DanNeely - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    As jovek and MadAd have mentioned above about 20% load your efficiency curve is more or less flat. The reason you want to have about 150-200W headroom above peak load is that your PSU fan will never leave idle, making the PSU effectively a silent component.
  • Sabresiberian - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    One of the things almost no one seems to consider is aging of components. I think headroom is a consideration in this regard, as well - your PSU rating is what it will do new, not after 3 years of service.

    Everyone else can build for what they see as reported by KILL-A-WATT if they want, but I will continue to build by max draw numbers as reported by the manufacturers of the parts themselves, what overclocking calculations show I might be drawing at max possible OC for my purposes, and future expandability. Yeah, this is partly because I came out of the days when PSUs were pretty much junk across the board and I frankly still have a little mistrust for the industry as a whole, but there ya go. That's my philosophy - I'm not saying anyone else is wrong, I don't have enough data to back that up, but I do know what flaky PSUs can do and I go out of my way to prevent having those issues.

  • SteelCity1981 - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    "but don’t buy a cheap PSU!"

    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.

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