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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  • Gigantopithecus - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Hi Vincent - Zach here, thanks for your feedback. I wanted to give readers an idea of how wide the SSD field has become by mentioning the main players. I think that's an important consideration given how much SSD prices fluctuate (one of Newegg's shell shocker deals today is a $120 (after rebate) 128gb SSD). While many of Intel's competitor's (like OCZ) often offer better price/capacity SSDs, I recommended Intel's G2 40gb in the upgraded build for reasons including the one you highlight. The guide even explicitly states the Intel SSDs are perceived as more reliable/issue-free. Of course, objective, thorough studies on the reliability of any PC component are essentially non-existent, unfortunately.
  • benrico - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    I thought these were coming out much sooner.... what gives?
  • Gigantopithecus - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    By "The next year will bring us Intel’s third generation SSDs, and second generation parts from SandForce, Crucial, and Indilinx," I meant that these drives will all be coming out over the course of the next year. (Not that they will arrive next year, in 2012.)
  • kevith - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Zach, nice roundup, nice, straightforward language, good job. It's nice to have someone else to sum up all the articles, so that I don't need to open them in four tabs in three browser-windows when planning a build.

    Only thing, maybe it's me, but you write, that: "... smaller SSD's doesn't have high write-speeds, but write-speed are not nearly as important [as read-speeds] for an OS/app-drive...", something like that.

    I thought that was just opposite: That you should go for a drive with fast write-speed for the OS-drive...? I understood, that when the OS is writing to the disk in the background, the system can freeze until the writing is done? Or was that only on early SSD's, and doesn't count anymore? Would love it if I'm wrong...:-)

    I'm sure you'll be asked to write more.
  • Gigantopithecus - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Hi kevith - Thank you for your feedback. I could have been more clear in the article. The only metric where SSDs don't handily best mechanical HDDs is sequential writes. In fact, fast HDDs like WD's VelociRaptors have higher sequential write performance than many SSDs. However, once the initial OS and app installation is done, your OS will rarely hit the SSD with sustained writes. Random reads and writes (which are MUCH faster on SSDs than HDDS) are far, far more common for a boot drive than sequential writes. Anand's article from almost two years ago sums this up well, see http://www.anandtech.com/show/2738/24 and http://www.anandtech.com/show/2738/25 - while the SSDs in that article are mostly outdated at this point, the take-home message stands.
  • kevith - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Great, thanks for the clarification and hint to the article, good for background knowledge.
  • lestr - Monday, February 14, 2011 - link

    Good work on the GUIDE. That's what it is, a GUIDE, right? FIRST word is BUDGET.
    I find it interesting and somewhat disconcerting that so much time was spent by so many arguing over and trying to second guess you and Jerrod on the use of the Antec 380 with respect to an SLI or CF configuration. I am curious as to how those people intend to install 2x PCIex16 cards on uATX boards with only one slot. That one has me really bumfuzzled and bewildered... is there an adapter for it? I'll buy 3! And they can't MENTALLY add or subtract $100 for an OS... Kinda like reading a review on the Egg where the author complains that an OEM processor doesn't come with a fan... Their only point appears to be trying to impress you and other readers of their intelligence? Big dog on the porch syndrome.. Oh well.
    My only question involves the SSD. I don't claim to be an expert, but it seems that a Crucial SSD C300 64GB would be a better choice all around as it's ~$130 and is also SATA 3 which would future proof at least the AMD and the Intel if it is backward compatible to 3gb/s and would be useful on the new 1155 fiasco.
    I only wish people would realize this is only a guide and to accept the parts they like and change the parts they don't by doing more research instead of commenting on irrelevant issues. The one HUGE FACT is that next gen - what ever part - is going to require LESS power than what we have today. I can see needing 500W or more on a full ATX with multiple x16's but then, would such a build be listed under BUDGET? Some people always have to pick things apart and complain, don't they?
    Thanks for your time, energy and effort on our behalf.
  • rwei - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Great article - having just upgraded an old P4 2.4C Northwood (may it rest in peace) for my parents, I'm glad to see many of my choices were in line with your well-made part suggestions.

    I'm just a little curious as to why you didn't mention core unlocking, which is potentially a significant boon for a budget builder.

    The system I got my parents uses a $50 MSI motherboard (the 880GM) with a Phenom II X2 555 ($85 - both USD prices converted from what I saw in Hong Kong). With little effort, I have the new system running with 3 cores (the 4th is unstable) at 3.8 GHz with just a slight increase in voltage. At that level, it can start to play with the big boys like the 955BE, but the cpu/mobo combo cost me less than the 955 CPU alone.
  • stmok - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    "I'm just a little curious as to why you didn't mention core unlocking, which is potentially a significant boon for a budget builder."

    => Because core unlocking isn't 100% guaranteed. Its luck of the draw...The goal is a guide for budget buyers. Most computer users on the planet aren't overclockers, tweakers, or enthusiasts. Guides like this will help them the most.

    I have to agree though, Zach Throckmorton did do a good guide here. Its sensible and realistic for the current situation.
  • HangFire - Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - link

    Most computer users are not system builders, either. At least mentioning core unlocking, if not recommending it, would be worthwhile.

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