Low-end PCs have a reputation for being sub-standard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. However, low-end merely refers to the price, and right now companies like AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA are throwing out quality components for prices that traditionally belong with outdated or inadequate hardware. You just have to know what to look for. In this guide we will be taking a look at both the entry-level and budget gaming offerings, with comments and suggestions specifically on stability, quality of components, and - with the budget gaming systems - balancing budget and quality with overclocking and stability.

In the time since our last Budget Guide in April, we have witnessed some major changes to the hardware market that have affected our decisions. Both AMD and Intel refreshed their CPU lineups with die shrinks, simultaneously increasing performance while reducing power consumption. This of course also allowed for further price cuts in the ongoing CPU price war. Both companies are facing imminent product launches, Intel with their Penryn refresh of the Core 2 architecture and AMD with the much-delayed Phenom processor family - including the native quad-core Barcelona/K10.

NVIDIA just recently launched their second generation of DX10 hardware in the 8800 GT 512MB - or should we say, they released a refresh of the first generation that appeared a year ago. The 8800 GT 512MB is a tweaked version of the high-end 8800 GTS/GTX series built on a smaller 65nm manufacturing process. Because of the ability to produce more GPU chips on each wafer, the card comes with a lower price tag and a move to the midrange sector. Especially exciting is that this card is being priced between $200 and $250, cheaper than the 8800 GTS (320MB and 640MB) and GTX (768MB) but with performance almost on par with the $500 8800 GTX. The best part is, at this price, we've managed to create a powerhouse of a budget gaming rig for just a tad over $1000.

With Vista now approaching its first birthday, driver issues are (for the most part) no longer a problem. That means it's finally time to justify the purchase of DX10 hardware if you haven't already, right? Well, yes and no. There are still issues with Vista, ranging from SLI incompatibilities to missing soundcard drivers and the oft-rumored slowdown of performance in Vista vs. XP machines. Indeed, many users chose to revert to Windows XP after encountering stability or performance issues under Vista, while others are arguing that current DX10 titles don't justify the cost of an upgrade. However, is XP still an alternative? Although our inclination is to believe performance is still better in XP - the OS memory footprint is certainly much smaller - we are in no doubt as to the future of Windows, and our choices reflect that.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • jtr - Friday, February 1, 2008 - link

    Jarred and Jonathan,

    These buyer's guides are very helpful, especially since you give your rationale and alternatives. I wonder if you could also recommend what you would buy with just $100 more (i.e., what's worth spending a little extra for). Also hoping the next budget buyer's guide is on the horizon--I'm planning on building another rig soon. Thanks, again.

  • owend - Tuesday, November 13, 2007 - link

    I just completed my budget build on Nov 4th. Reading your article with many of the same components was reaffirming! Similar to the Intel builds mine was a Intel E2140, Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L, and 2GB of 4-4-4 memory with a $40 MIB (one of the “nearly every major manufacture[s]”). With my sensitive ears I did opt for the $50 passive heatsink from Thermalright and a Corsair power supply, both of which you mentioned. Even the Samsung 20xDVD was the same (but I spent 2.5x $ on a retail <weep>). The only real difference was I used a $60 passively cooled video card, but my focus was the ears and not gaming.

    I think your article was spot on. I labored for a month researching my build but could have waited another few days and just read your article instead. You present a great budget build from which each individual can tailor to their specific needs. Thanks.
  • JonathanMaloney - Friday, November 16, 2007 - link

    Good to hear that - and thanks for the positive comments :)
  • Cignal - Monday, November 12, 2007 - link

  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 13, 2007 - link

    We just did a">Midrange Guide a month ago, which is mostly current. You could change out the GPU, obviously, but otherwise the choices are pretty much the same.
  • crazycarl - Friday, November 9, 2007 - link

    What exactly does the gigabyte have that the abit does not? Feature comparisons don't show any particular omission from one to the other, and I've heard the abit is a better overclocker, if more finnicky to get going. Can anyone clarify this for me?
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 9, 2007 - link

    Gigabyte has an extra x1 PCI-E slot. Other than that, the difference mainly is the "finickiness" you mention. The abit is a reasonable alternative and there is nothing inherently wrong with either board. Some people love abit, though, and others prefer some other brand.
  • Polizei - Friday, November 9, 2007 - link

    After doing a little more research and pondering over the article, I did have a few questions if maybe the article writers could clear things up.

    1. Were these systems actually tested? Or is this just a conglomeration of parts that you have used in the past in various systems that all seemed to work well. OR, were some of the parts never even used before and just seemed like a good value for the money?

    2. I ask the above questions mainly because I was concerned about the Case and Power Supply combos you chose. While those deals always seem tempting, like others, I have heard horror stories regarding the power supplies in these combos and have seen pretty much no reviews for any of the mentioned models. The same rang true with the micro-atx gigabyte board you used in your budget Intel system; I've heard of the AMD one and it has gotten great reviews, but I haven't heard much of anything for the intel one except for a few negetive comments about it's failure to compete with G33 chipset boards. So again I'm just curious if these parts were actually tested.

    Again though I'd like to reiterate how appreciative I am that a review team finally stepped up and put together an article like this. I'm sure for the most part it is sound, and I agree with a lot of the part choices (not to mention they leave a lot of room to sub parts in here or their based on personal preference). Additionally, you guys respected various opinions by including both an AMD and Intel platform, while most reviewers would have said to forget about AMD even though they still offer a good value for the buck at certain price levels.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 9, 2007 - link

    Gary has been working on testing the GB motherboard, and he was a major contributor in terms of the mobo recommendations. Most of the rest, brand isn't particularly important. So the motherboards are solid, according to Gary.

    For the case and PSU, that's always a huge concern for the elite people out there running midrange and high-end setups. We're talking budget rigs here, folks - though the gaming systems are of necessity closer to midrange than budget.

    Are the PSUs in either case great? Not at all. Could the PSU fail at some point? Yup. Overclock a lot and you almost guarantee it will fail. That said, power supplies really aren't a critical factor on low-end systems. Sure, these are rated at 400W, and if we put that sort of load on these models they would almost certainly have problems. (I don't even want to think of seeing Christoph test some of these!) But let's call it a 65% efficiency PSU - reasonable given these are practically free. Power draw on systems like this is going to be around 150W-200W; if you really try, maybe you can get it up to 250W (without overclocking). 250W would mean that the PSU is actually delivering ~160W to the internal components, well within the capacity of even a crappy low-end unit.

    I've had OCZ, Enermax, Antec, and various other brands fail on me - almost as often as the completely generic stuff fails. As someone above pointed out, I would be interested to see what sort of compromises people are willing to make to get a good quality $60 PSU into these systems. Or do we just forget about "budget gaming" and stick with midrange systems that cost $1250? We're already over the $1000 I would have liked (and $500 on the entry-level stuff).

    Want to post alternatives? Think you can come up with something significantly better that no one will have issues with? Hey, I've built a lot of PCs for people over the years. Fact of the matter is, I still don't know how to get someone shooting for a $500 PC to actually buy a decent power supply! I usually tell them, "if the power supply fails - perhaps even WHEN it fails - you'll have to buy a new one." (Note: I don't run a shop, so this is just helping people out with building a system.)
  • Polizei - Monday, November 12, 2007 - link

    Thank you, I'm glad you took the time to respond to my questions. I realize you guys are trying to put together a good low-budget guide so that people can enjoy big-time performance on a small dollar, and this is necessary in the marketplace.

    I disagree a great deal with some of your points however. First off, it's clearly apparent from what you said that you guys didn't actually build these budget rigs and test them for part compatibility. It sounds like you've tested many of them independently, but not together, so you're basically trusting paper specs in terms of whether or not the parts actually work together. While that can work most of the time, there's so many finicky parts out there (i.e. motherboards and ram modules not liking each other, videocards not being recognized properly) that if an article like this is going to be done, you should at least put a disclaimer that the rig was not tested as a whole.

    Secondly, one of the issues you bring up about PSUs is a valid point; no matter what the company and the efficiency rating, a PSU can fail at random. I too have owned many PSUs over the year from big name companies and small no-name companies, and have had failures on both, but I'd like to say that the bigger names and supplies that review sites have ran through brutal torture tests are likely to hold up better. Do most of these cost more and make a budget rig difficult to fit in? Certainly, but there are still some that are slightly better than others for $50 or less. On top of that, you mention that these parts won't hit a full 400 watt, and while that's correct, I think the 8800 GT (even being a single slot, 104W TDP rated) will possibly up it a little higher then your estimations. Still, it should be more then enough, but if your going to stay cheap, might as well get a lower-wattage PSU from a bigger brand (i.e. a 360W PC Power and Cooling, or a 420W Thermaltake, or a 380W Antec) for a similar or slightly higher price.

    Furthermore, the tone of your response (and maybe I'm misinterpreting this) is that a power supply or a power supply failing is unimportant in a budget rig. I'm sorry but this is a ridiculous notion if this is indeed what you meant. Just because someone doesn't have as much money to spend on a rig, it doesn't mean they have to worry about a much higher chance of failure with their hard-earned money. It's true you get what you pay for, but it's still important to look at quality issues, numbers of owners who have had failed units, etc etc as best you can.

    Lastly, you mentioned to post something reasonable for the $$. I unfortunately am not a reviewer and also on a low budget, so I too did not have a chance to test this configuration, but this is just another possibility (again hasn't been tested so it's possibly just as good as yours)- (prices from newegg)
    Samsung SATA 18x lightscribe DVDR burner|Coolermaster Elite 330 RC-330-KKN1-GP|Western Digital WD800JD SATA 3.0, 7,200rpm, 80GB| ASUS M2A-VM AM2 AMD 690G Micro-ATX|Coolermaster eXtreme RP-500-PCAR 500W|A-DATA 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2 800 (PC2 6400)|AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ Brisbane 2.1GHz AM2 65W|Sapphire Radeon HD 2600XT 256MB
    + keyboard, speakers, mouse, $550-570. Add Vista, $650-670. (you could do this with intel as well - also you never mentioned if you guys or "Gary" tested that intel board, I was curious about that).

    But anyways, I'm not trying to tear you guys or the article apart. I'm definitely a big fan of , I just wanted to see what all was put into the article because parts of it were vague, but you've been helpful in clearing some of it up.

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