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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  • jonp - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    not me, i build systems for others and you can't deliver it without the OS. it's integral to the cost of the system. along with the power cord some have also commented on.
  • kevith - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

  • HangFire - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    It's a hard cost, keep it.
  • Icabus - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    On the Base System Performance Summary page under the CPU Upgrades section:

    AMD offers five compelling CPU upgrades to the Athlon II X4 250.

    This should be the X2 not the X4.
  • SmCaudata - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    When you talk about the i5-760 you don't mention the need for a discrete video card. Doesn't seem like an upgrade option you should mention in this budget segment.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    True. I've updated the text just to make this clear. We really aren't recommending anyone go out and buy an i5-760 right now. It's a fine CPU, but for the cost and features, I would much rather wait a month or so and get Sandy Bridge -- which has an IGP as well.
  • geniekid - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    In general, I think AT is second to none as far as tech websites go. But, for system building, I think I still have to give the nod to Tom's Hardware and it's System Builder Marathons because they actually assemble their machines and bench them. Don't get me wrong. AT's bench is an invaluable resource, but if I'm dropping that much money to build a new machine based on the recommendations of an online article, I feel a lot more confident if the article writers actually built the thing.
  • Gigantopithecus - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Hi geniekid - Zach here, thank you for your feedback. I agree that giving actual numbers from actual benchmarks, and probably also pictures of the finished systems as well, would be more effective than simply assuring you that I've built all of these systems for friends and know what they can do, and that they can do it well. ;) I'll keep that in mind if I'm asked to write more guides in the future.
  • trogthefirst - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Right on!
  • Vincent - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    I was surprised to see the article recommend OCZ Vertex 2 SSDs in light of the recent controversy over the switch to slower 25nm NAND flash. Basically they switched the type of chips they used and now the drives are slower. This thread has more details


    Clearly, the new drives' slower speeds will still blow away a mechanical drive, but this move by OCZ and their response to customer complaints hurts their reputation.

    I know that Anand has been very complimentary toward OCZ when at the same time he has had very strong pro-consumer words about Intel's handling of their chipset issues. It would be nice to see Anand's take on the OCZ issue and to see him encourage OCZ to respond better to consumers.

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