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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  • mpc7488 - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    As the subject, good article, these system guides are always fun to read and debate.

    You do touch on the OEM systems up front, but I didn't feel they got quite enough attention. At this price point, for budget systems that is, they are really a powerful option. I rounded up some pricing to compare:

    The budget system as quoted in this article is:
    Budget AMD: Athlon 64 3000+, 1 GB DDR2-667, 160 GB HDD, GeForce 6150, DVD-R/W, 19” Sceptre, keyboard, mouse, X-230 speakers, Win XP Home

    Tally: $749 ($368 + $381)

    Now then, let's compare to what Dell has on sale.

    Dell AMD E521: Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1 GB DDR2-533, 160 GB HDD, GeForce 6150, DVD, 19” Dell 1907FP Ultrasharp, keyboard, mouse, Win XP Home, 1 year on-site warranty.

    Tally: $625 ($579, free shipping, ~$46 tax (NY))

    With a $30 DVD-R/W upgrade these systems are essentially the same, with the Dell having a much faster dual-core processor, a very quiet case, and a warranty, with $100 cash in pocket. If you don’t need a monitor, the price drops to $430.92, after shipping and tax. With Windows! The user in this range often wants decent performance and usability but the PC isn't enough of a priority to spend a lot of cash, or they are poor college students forgoing Ramen noodles to upgrade their video cards, but I digress. Point being, the warranty coverage and tech support are usually the most valuable to budget purchasers, which also factors in subjectively.

    I am not a n00b, you say! I want pure performance at Hyundai prices! Ok, let's look stricly at performance with OEMs, i.e., upgrading. A lot of the older Dells didn’t have expansion slots, which sucked, but a lot of the newer chassis do, and this one has one PCIe x16 slot which opens up upgrading as an option. As the article points out, graphics horsepower means more than CPU at the moment. So with a couple of additions to our Dell box:

    DVD-R/W: $29
    XFX GeForce 7900 GT: $199.99 (after $50 MIR from Newegg)

    Toss in $10 for shipping, and that is a really nice gaming rig with a 3800+ X2, 1 GB of RAM, and a 7900GT for <$865 with a legal copy of Windows and a warranty. Yes, you will feel dirty every time you press the power button above the 'Dell' logo, but it'll fade quickly once you're gaming at high res with AA on your 1907FP.

    All this said - I build my own systems, always. I like overclocking and mucking about in the BIOS, choosing my own heatsink/fan combo, and so forth too much to ever make an OEM system my primary box. But they can be really nice to suggest to friends, neighbors, acquaintences, and even enthusiasts without enough time or energy to build their own.

    Thanks for stimulating my brain Jarred! A good PC hardware discussion always wakes me up in the morning.
    Reply
  • misanthropy - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    The power suppy for that dell system can't handle a 7900GT, n00b. Reply
  • mpc7488 - Friday, October 27, 2006 - link

    Actually it can, and does. I personally know someone running that config. no problem, Google it and you'll find others. I was wondering if that would come up, good point to raise regardless of malice. Reply
  • yehuda - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    The Dell E521 would be perfect if it had DVI onboard. The integrated GeForce 6150 graphics processor is readily capable of that, only the physical connector is missing.

    http://www.nvidia.com/page/gpu_mobo_tech_specs.htm...">http://www.nvidia.com/page/gpu_mobo_tech_specs.htm...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - link

    You are correct that the OEM systems are a pretty good deal. However, please remember to include speakers and a minor upgrade to the mouse. Depending on whether or not you want to argue about taxes and shipping, the net result is that the price ends up very close to what you would pay for the same configuration in DIY clothing. Here's what I got:

    Base AMD Athlon™ 64 X2 Dual-Core 3800+
    Operating System Genuine Windows® XP Media Center Edition 2005
    Memory 1GB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 533MHz- 2DIMMs
    Keyboard Dell USB Keyboard and Dell Optical USB Mouse
    Monitor 19 inch Ultrasharp™ 1907FP Digital Flat Panel
    Video Card 256MB NVIDIA Geforce 7300LE TurboCache
    Hard Drive 160GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/DataBurst Cache™
    Floppy Drive and Media Reader No Floppy Drive Included
    Mouse Mouse included in Wireless, Laser or Bluetooth Package
    Network Interface Integrated 10/100 Ethernet
    Modem No Modem Option
    Adobe Software Adobe® Acrobat® Reader 7.0
    CD ROM/DVD ROM 16x DVD+/-RW Drive
    Sound Cards Integrated 7.1 Channel Audio
    Speakers Dell A525 30 Watt 2.1 Stereo Speakers with Subwoofer
    Office Productivity Software (Pre-Installed) No productivity suite- Includes Microsoft Works 8. DOES NOT INCLUDE MS WORD
    Security Software No Security Subscription
    Warranty and Service 1Yr Ltd Warranty and At-Home Service
    Internet Access Service 6 Months of EarthLink Internet Access Included
    Miscellaneous Award Winning Service and Support
    Future Operating Systems Windows Vista™ Capable
    Dell Digital Entertainment No preinstalled software
    TOTAL:$729.00
    Tax: $61
    Final Bill: $790.

    Compare that to the budget config, only add in the CPU upgrade and use the XP accessory package. Also factor in the 7300 LE TC Dell includes. You end up saving about $75 all told, which is where I arrived at my conclusion: "You still get a lower price on the software [Works is also included if you care about that].... We feel that our buyer's guides offer better expandability, performance, 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."

    My point in including the OEM paragraph was to make sure people were aware of the option. I would say the overall component selection in the budget config is slightly better than what Dell gives, but if you just plan on using the computer without any performance tuning then the Dell (and probably HP and others) would come out on top. I will make this more clear, though, as I really do mean people should consider OEM systems at the bottom of the price range.
    Reply
  • gman003 - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    Jarred,

    I would have to say that the Dell option is a good option, but in many peoples case, not the best option. I just recommended the Dell OEM system to a friend because I was running short on time. After 3-4 weeks of "build" time, the Dell finally arrived. I believe he placed his order in the month of Septemeber, so it was late September. He just received his computer this week, on the 23rd. I felt bad for the poor guy. He had ordered a 19" LCD from newegg the same day as the Dell system, but the LCD showed up on his doorstep on October 2nd.
    The computer arrived and is what you would expect for a AMD X2 3800+ system. I just don't know if it was really worth waiting around for, ya know? So you have that going against the Dell system. Now, let's take into account the problems of dealing with Dell when a warranty or heaven-forbid, a technical problem happens.
    I have called Dell about 10 times in the last 2 months for warranty, parts, issues, etc. and every call has been to an Indian person with poor English, which results in poor customer service. My shortest call to one person, took 30 minutes because of how many times you have to repeat yourself to them so that they can understand you. It's just awful. My longest call has been somewhere around 2-3 hours. This is not an exaggeration. I have phone records to prove it. Compare this to buying a DIY rig from a site like newegg or zipzoomfly where the delivery time is 3 days and warranty issues are handled by an actual American person residing here in the good ol' US of A. I just can't say that the Dell is worth the small amount of cost savings for the nightmares that await some people that have to deal with Dell after the sale.
    As a PC builder, I would rather help people build their own computer than have them deal with Dell. I would hope the rest of the technical community would do the same.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 26, 2006 - link

    I merely used Dell as one example, being that they are currently the largest OEM. Feel free to insert HP, Gateway, or some other OEM and you will still usually get similar prices (if not worse). Reply
  • gman003 - Friday, October 27, 2006 - link

    Not entirely true. There is an article on a shall we say "competing website", that stated that HP had actually surpassed Dell during this quarter or this year for total desktops/laptops etc. They considered it a tie, but HP had a small lead, so there :-p

    Actually, my main point was that, the Dell OEM system like any other OEM system is good, but is probably not worth the savings when you take into account having to deal with the manufacturer when problems happen. It may not justify saving $50-$100 for an OEM system like that since you have to deal with shall we say "Indians", that have a horrible time trying to understand what you are saying.

    Waiting 3-4 weeks for your computer to show up is not worth the cost savings. Having horrible customer support is not worth the cost savings. Just buy a custom built rig everytime and deal with a homegrown US of A company like newegg or zipzoomfly. They will handle your RMA promptly and efficiently in my past experiences compared to Dell.

    Let's try to do away with Dell. Just remember, everytime you call Dell, its like Hell.
    Reply
  • Frumious1 - Friday, October 27, 2006 - link

    That has to be one of the most ignorant posts I've read in a long time. Racism and nationalism combined. What more could we ask for!? "Don't buy Dell because you'll get support from Indians!" Okay, let's think about a few things. Most of the people who call Dell technical support our computer novices, and often they are calling with stupid questions. They certainly aren't capable of building their own system and installing windows XP and all of the other software! What exactly is going to be the response of Newegg or Zipzoomfly if you should call up and informed them that you're having problems with drivers, Windows, etc.?

    Generally speaking, the support from most online retailers is going to be if you need a hardware replacement. How often do you need to replace hardware in an OEM system because it fails on arrival or soon after? I have supported hundreds of Dell systems at an IT job, and while we definitely had component failures over the years, it was typically less than 10% of the systems that had problems during a three-year period.

    If you purchase separate components and you get a failed piece of hardware, unless you spend extra in order to get an additional warranty, you're basically stuck RMAing the device. I have done that several times with new egg, and it is always at least a week delay if not two. Four weeks to get a complete system built and assembled, right around the time that Intel launched Core 2 Duo and everyone finally had a reason to buy Dell systems again? That's not that big of a problem in my book, especially considering all of the problems that were going on with P965.

    Now let's shift over to Dell (or HP). On the offhand you get a bad component with your computer and you know how to troubleshoot it enough to tell that your hard drive, motherboard, whatever is the problem, what sort of support you get? Maybe you have to deal with the call center from India, but once you tell them "I turn my computer on and it won't work. It tells me boot device not found" you will usually be directed towards your local support location. Take the computer in, and perhaps in as little as one hour you will have your system fixed and running, certainly no more than a day or two. That sort of support comes standard for one year, and you can upgrade to two years for a moderate fee.

    Dell is no angel, but neither are they that bad. They are, like most companies, looking to make money. You still get what you pay for, which means if you go with the cheap systems you get cheaper quality and lower performance. My biggest complaint with Dell is their motherboards, as that's the one area where low quality often leads to instability over time. That opinion once again stems from my support of hundreds of Dell computers.
    Reply
  • gman003 - Friday, October 27, 2006 - link

    No, Dell really is that bad. Do you know how many times you have to repeat yourself to them. They have horrible customer service. That alone is reason enough to not buy from them. I have way too many tell me how bad their experiences with Dell are all the time.

    The response of newegg or zipzoomfly for a bad motherboard that you have to RMA is this, "Ok sir, go ahead and purchase a new one. Send us your bad motherboard and we will reimburse you once we have received the board." 3 days later you have a new board. If the same situation happened at Dell, you would be on the phone for over an hour telling them your case number, service tag, location, etc. so they can document it. Then you would wait 2-4 weeks for your part to arrive. Thanks, but no thanks.

    Can you really deny the fact that Dell's customer service center is in India and they have the worst accents on the planet?

    It took 4 weeks to build an AMD X2 3800 system if you had actually read the post correctly. You really think 4 weeks is an average time it should take to build a system that has been out for a year now? C'mon, gimme a break.
    Reply

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