Entry-Level

An entry-level desktop PC is difficult to define, but in today's market a reasonably powered machine with integrated video can be had for under $500. In fact, when ordering from Tier 1 companies like Dell, HP or Gateway, this price often includes an LCD monitor as well.

The shortcomings of Tier 1 PCs are several, but often exaggerated and blown out of proportion in online communities quick to scorn the status quo. It is true that parts quality can be an issue, so warranty coverage is important. It is also true that BIOS options are extremely limited, and overclocking is usually out of the question. Expansion limitations, such as slot availability and power supply capacity, are also a factor and must be considered when buying.

However, Tier 1 PCs are not all bad. Quite the contrary, creating product on such a large scale allows them enormous power to drive prices down and sell complete systems at a price significantly lower than that possible for consumers to replicate with parts bought off the shelf at retail. Further, in the "old days" many entry-level machines lacked AGP slots, making upgrades very difficult for gamers. Now, most if not all of these machines provide at least one PCI Express slot, allowing for aftermarket upgrades, though upgrades through the supplier are typically not available to avoid eating into their profits from the higher priced gaming product lines.

Entry-Level Supplier Choice: Dell

Dell is one of those companies some people love to hate, but they consistently offer very low priced system configurations and reasonably priced warranty coverage that in many cases is onsite next business day service, which is amazing for the price paid. Their configurations change frequently, but the system offered below is representative of a solid entry-level system.

Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower


PROCESSOR: Intel Core 2 Duo E7300 (2.66GHz, 3M, L2Cache, 1066FSB)
OPERATING SYSTEM: Genuine Windows Vista Home Basic, Service Pack 1
WARRANTY and SERVICE: 2 Year Basic Limited Warranty and 2 Year NBD On-Site Service
MONITOR: Dell 20 inch Widescreen 2009WFP UltraSharp Digital Flat Panel
MEMORY: 2GB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz - 2DIMMs
OPTICAL DRIVE: Single Drive: 16X (DVD+/-RW) Burner Drive
HARD DRIVE: 250GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/DataBurst Cache
VIDEO CARD: Integrated Video, Intel GMA X4500HD
FLASH READER: Dell 19-in-1 Media Card Reader
SOUND: Integrated 5.1 Channel Audio
KEYBOARD: Dell USB Keyboard
MOUSE: Dell Optical USB Mouse
PRODUCTIVITY SOFTWARE: No Pre-installed Productivity Software
PRICE: $488 plus $35 shipping; $523 total plus tax

System Rationale

Maximizing a deal from Dell often depends on not choosing some upgrade options that are very overpriced. For the configuration above, we opted not to upgrade the memory and hard drive for this reason, and both are sufficient for an entry-level machine as it is. The E7300 is a good CPU at this price, and we opted to upgrade the warranty from 1 year to 2 years at a cost of $39. This is a fantastic value for onsite service, even if you have to muddle through an Indian call center conversation first. We also opted to add a media card reader for $30, as this is a frequently used item for many people. Though the addition of the monitor raises the price, this specific deal offers the UltraSharp 2009WFP for only a $90 increase, which is a great deal on a fantastic well-reviewed monitor, so we couldn't justify excluding it. Normally, the 2009WFP costs upwards of $200, so this is definitely a steal.

Expansion Options

In terms of expansion, a PCIe x16 slot is included in this model, which is hurdle one. Hurdle two is providing power if necessary, such as with any midrange video card that requires a 6-pin power connector and the capacity to supply it. Obviously one can choose to simply use an entry-level card, such as the ATI HD 4670, that doesn't require any power beyond what the PCIe slot can provide. If a higher level card is desired, this model comes with a 300W power supply. Given the other system components, most midrange cards should work fine. Adapters are readily available that can convert the S-ATA power connectors in the Vostro 220 into a 6-pin for use with higher end cards. If even more power is desired, say to add an HD 4870 to the system in the future, the power supply can be replaced with any standard ATX power supply (which will also avoid the hassle of adapters).

We realize the above is a mouthful. To recap the video upgrade options:

  1. Install a low midrange card that does not require a 6-pin connection, such as the HD 4670. This is the easiest path to entry-level gaming.
  2. Upgrade the power supply to a standard ATX supply of sufficient capacity to support the new card.
  3. Keep the existing power supply, adapt the connectors, and stay within your power budget.

For reference, we've had an 8800 GT running in an Inspiron 530 for months without issue on the Dell-provided power supply.

Index Midrange
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  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Actually, that is *NOT* the case anymore. Dell specifically talked to me about this at last CES: for sure on their XPS models, they now use a 100% standard ATX power supply. It's possible that decision doesn't extend to the Vostro line, but I do know for a fact that the XPS 620 I have uses a standard ATX PSU. In fact, I think even my old XPS 410 used a standard ATX PSU, and that was ~3 years ago. Reply
  • tacoburrito - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Some XPS models (possibly all?) use the BTX-form motherboards. I have the XPS 410 myself and it has a BTX MB. XPS models with the BTX MB might use a different power connector that only Dell suppled PSU can connect. This question was posed in a computer publication (I don't remeber which; it might be Smart Computing) less than 6 months ago and the reply from the magazine editorial was Dell's MB might not work with any standard PSU.

    it is also very possible that Dell is now using standard parts for all their newer systems. If that is the case, this thread is moot.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 23, 2008 - link

    BTX in this case is merely an arrangement of internal parts; BTX motherboards still use ATX power supplies, unless the vendor decides to make something proprietary. Dell has told me outright that they have moved away from using proprietary PSU connectors, and as far as I can tell the PSU in the XPS 410, XPS 620, and XPS 720 H2C I looked at, and quite a few other non-XPS systems all use normal ATX PSUs now. (Thank goodness!) Reply
  • Matt Campbell - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    I searched through some forums before writing that, and several of them all stated that the Vostro 220 uses a standard ATX supply. I can't be 100% sure since I don't have one myself, but our Inspiron 530 has a standard ATX supply, and as Jarred says I believe they've been moving towards that in general. Reply
  • Pr1mus - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    I've done PSU swaps on many of them, and both the Vostro 200 and 400 series use standard ATX PSUs. We generally throw Corsair PSUs in when we can. Reply
  • Matt Campbell - Friday, January 16, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the update! Helpful for those looking. Reply
  • MalVeauX - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Heya,

    Largely the reason there's no HTPC extravaganza is because exactly what was just mentioned. There's just too many codecs, hardware problems, questionable means of digitizing a media source, software issues for playback (it's hard to have a single piece of software that can do it all; not even VLC can do it all perfectly). A lot of the software is open source, but a lot is pay as well; and in the end, building a HTPC might be cheap hardware wise, but it gets costly when you start to use real software (compared to pirated/freesource).

    Then there's this one thing: simplicity. HTPC's are never simple. Someone who wants to sit back, click on the tube, and browse their collection while watching some HD content at the same time will have to keep maintenance, fix it, and make sure all the new things work with what they have. It's not nearly as simple as just putting in a disc or tuning into an HD channel with a hardware solution.

    HTPC's are generally for the enthusiast who is willing to put in the time and effort to know the system, know the hardware, know the media, and be able to fine tune and cope with codecs and `ripping' of sources. Not everyone can do that confidently. And that's why you don't see massive tech sites displaying new cases and systems for HTPC. It's a tiny market. There is however big forum communities for it (google will reveal them).

    Very best,
    Reply
  • The0ne - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    For reasons you've mentioned already this is why I still use my main PC to output all music/video content. It's just not as simple I would like it to be and I really don't want to spend my weekends keeping maintenance or debugging problems. My co-worker has a fantastic setup but using myth-tv but when things don't work right it's a nightmare. I wish they were simplere but they're not. For now a Phillips DVD upscaling player that allows attachment of USB drives is easier :) Reply
  • QChronoD - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Is there a good option out there for a powerful but QUIET playback machine. Doesn't necessarily need space for tuners, but something small that can handle 1080p H.264 or anything else you could throw at it.

    Also hope that you guys put together a guide on HTPCs in all its glory. The net is severely lacking in a competent comparison of all the 10-foot interfaces, and the bazillion drivers and codecs needed to get anything more than .avi and .wmv to work. Please, please, please, look at the extenders and tell us if any can actually handle what formats (i.e. do they work with all my .mkv anime? can they play all DVD backups [yes i own the discs])
    Reply
  • aeternitas - Thursday, December 25, 2008 - link

    Here are my steps to create a silent system that can play just about anything you throw at it at 1080i/p.

    Its complicated and long so try and pay attention.



    1. Build a silent cheap ($500) dual core system.
    2. Search "Community Codec Pack" online. Download. Install.


    The reason there isnt many guides for this is the fact it is not complicated. Plug the PC into a TV.
    Reply

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