Introduction

In the recent past, we have put out buyers guides covering the midrange and high-end markets. Those are definitely easier to put together, as right now is a great time to purchase a midrange or faster computer - or at least, it's as good of the time as you're likely to see, what with the continuous release of newer products as time rolls on. One subject that we haven't looked at in several months is the budget sector, and quite a few of you have asked for advice on what to purchase. Many others have also pointed out the rising costs of memory, making it even more difficult to put together a reasonably priced computer. We hope to be able to shed some light on the topic in this buyer's guide, although the best we can do is to grit our teeth and simply recommend spending a bit more money than you would like.

Our buyer's guides are focused on putting together a complete system that fits the target market segment. We've already covered midrange ($1000-$1500) and high-end ($2000+) configurations, but unfortunately for many of us the pocketbook is going to have a far greater impact on our component choices than we would like. Today, we will tackle the budget sector, with the goal of keeping prices to around $1000 on the upgraded configurations, and getting as close as possible to $500 on the base systems. Needless to say, without making some serious compromises it is currently impossible to build a new complete computer system for $500, and we are not willing to make those compromises. Our maximum upgrade will also span the upper-budget and lower-midrange price segment, but individualization is the key: get the upgraded parts that you find useful, and don't bother with those you don't feel you need.

Especially at the budget end of the spectrum, it becomes reasonable to consider prebuilt solutions available at your local computer stores or from the larger OEMs. A quick look at Dell for instance shows that desktop systems starting at a mere $330 are available, which is quite a bit cheaper than what we will recommend today. If that seems too good to be true, sadly it is. The bare minimum system doesn't include a monitor, and it cuts down virtually every component choice possible. 512MB of RAM, a CD-RW optical drive, 80GB hard drive, integrated graphics, and the cheapest processors available (Sempron or Celeron in this case) allow them to reach their bargain basement price. By the time you make some reasonable upgrades like adding a monitor, 2x512MB of RAM, a faster CPU, and a DVD burner suddenly the price is right up there with the system configurations we will put together.

A few final points about OEM systems. You still get a lower price on the software, although that also means you get a bunch of software that you might not want. You also get a single warranty and support contact for the first year. Overclocking typically won't be an optionm though the need for it at this price point is debatable. The slightly upgraded budget OEM configurations really are worth a look, as they can save over $100 all told. Does that mean you should or shouldn't purchase an OEM system? As usual, there is no one answer that will fit every person and many will be more than satisfied with your typical budget OEM configurations. We feel that our buyer's guides offer better expandability, performance, customization, and features at roughly the same price, with the only potential drawback being that you have to know how to put together the system yourself.

We changed the format of our buyer's guides last time to focus on the overall system packages rather than going through each individual component. This allows us to be a bit more concise and avoid repeating the same things every other week - after all, how much can you really say about a hard drive? We will continue that trend with this guide as well, looking at the basic platform choices first and then moving on to accessories like the case, power supply, input devices, and display. For the most part, you should be able to mix and match components as you see fit, and certainly we will not be able to cover every single possibility. GPUs and motherboards that use the same chipsets will typically perform the same, with price, features, and overclocking potential being the differentiating factors. Overclocking is certainly a possibility within the budget price segment, although you will usually get much better results if you upgrade some of the parts, particularly the motherboard and RAM. We won't focus too heavily on overclocking in this guide, other than to mention typical estimates of what can be achieved.

With that out of the way, we will start with the base AMD recommendations, followed by the base Intel recommendations. We will then move on to the upgraded configurations before wrapping up with coverage of the accessories.

Baseline AMD Budget Platform
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    I did add a mention of the overclocking limitations of the board, which are mostly caused by the lack of voltage adjustments. Gary has it for review and hasn't had any problems with memory incompatibility. If you're after great overclocking, uATX and IGP solutions are rarely a good way to go. True, they could be made to overclock better than most do, but enthusiasts looking at overclocking generally don't want uATX systems -- or at least that's the general attitude of the motherboard manufacturers.

    I've got the 939 ASUS board and it overclocks to the maximum BIOS limit of 240 HTT bus without too much trouble. I'm using it in my HTPC system and have been for a while. There are always going to be compromises made in budget systems. We chose to downplay overclocking support in order to get a DVI port and decent IGP. You could go with something like the DFI board and a 7300TC card for $30 more and get much better overclocking. You could spend $10 more on the Abit board and get better (but not great) overclocking. However, there are a ton of people out there that don't want to overclock. Just because a board has poor overclocking support doesn't mean a lot of people won't like the other features. That's my take anyway.

    --Jarred
    Reply
  • bzo - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Jarred,

    one more thing. If you guys have this board for review, PLEASE bring to ASUS's attention the lack of the HTT multipler in the BIOS and the voltage incompatibility with DDR2-800. Just being able to overclock at all would be great! Queries to ASUS support have gone nowhere.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Gary is working on a review. I initially screwed up on my overclock percentage and said 20%. Gary says he topped out currently at around 225 MHz HTT, which is 12.5%, and I changed the text to ~10%. I agree that the Abit board looks to be a better overclocker (performance at stock levels is going to be about the same), but at that point you're looking at a $100 "budget" motherboard and the $70 options begin to gain my interest. I think the Biostar TForce 6100 might overclock a bit better than the ASUS, so I would be more inclined to go down to that and lose the DVI port rather than spend any more on the motherboard. Reply
  • bzo - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    great, look forward to seeing the review. That's the best overclock I've heard about for this board. Do you guys have access to an unreleased BIOS or something? Or maybe Gary has some tweaks or tips for getting there?

    Here's a recent review where the reviewer gets to 213Mhz, which is more typical in my experience.

    http://www.tweaktown.com/reviews/966/5/page_5_bios...">Tweaktown review
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Gary tends to work magic with overclocking, so hopefully he can shed some light on the matter. I'm pretty sure he's using a public BIOS, though... maybe just better RAM and other components are playing a role? Reply
  • bzo - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Hi Jarred, granted the focus of this budget build is not overclocking, but it doesn't sound like you have hands on use with the AM2 M2NPV. You mention a potential 20% overclock, where it's actually closer to 5%. As far as I know, the 939 version does let you change the HTT mulitiplier which is why you can get to 240fsb. The AM2 BIOS is missing this adjustment. As we all know, the HTT bus not take to running over spec well, which is the biggest limitation of this board, not the voltage adjustments. Most people can not get this board past 210fsb.

    If you don't believe the problems with this board, just check out the reviews at Newegg or the user forums at asus.com.

    Also, while the Abit is not as good an overclocker as say my Lanparty NF4-Ultra, it sure looks like a pretty good performer to me. People successfully running > 300fsb, CPU voltage to 2.0v, ram voltage to 2.5v, and many of the obscure adjustments I see on my DFI. Well worth an extra $10. Heck, the silent heatpipe chipset cooler on the abit is worth the extra $ alone.
    Reply
  • BladeVenom - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    There really is no price difference between the upgraded budget system and the midrange system. I think it would be more useful to keep a clear price divide between the different categories. Otherwise you might as well just call them the same thing and save yourself half an article. Reply
  • KAZANI - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    Agreed. The upgraded recommendation is totally redundant. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    The idea is to purchase the upgrades you want/need. I don't think you need every more expensive option, so maybe just the CPU, mobo, and GPU. We do feel moving towards midrange will get you a better overall config, and part of the problem is that there really isn't much of a difference between an upgraded budget setup and a midrange computer. If we left off the upgrades altogether, though, I don't think people would like that. Reply
  • stmok - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    ...On Page 6, under the Budget Case and Accessories package, you have Linux and OpenOffice in the package.

    Shouldn't you include MS Office under the Windows XP Budget Case and Accessories package?

    Its not exactly a "fair comparison" to have one solution include an office suite, but the other without.

    The rest of the article seems fine. Interestingly, I'm also considering the ASUS M2NPV-VM for a budget setup. :) (But with a cheap as Sempron for now).

    I noticed in the Upgraded Budget AMD Athlon X2 AM2 System on page 4, you suggested a X2 3800+...I'm assuming that's the regular 89W ones, right? How much are the 65W versions? (Reason I'm asking because down here in Australia, the price difference is about AUD$5 to AUD$7).
    Reply

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