Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System
Hardware Component Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 640
(Propus 45nm, 3.0GHz, 4x512KB L2, 95W)
Video Integrated ATI Radeon HD 4250 -
Motherboard MSI 880GM-E41 (AMD 880G/SB710 AM3) $75
Memory Corsair 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1333 CL9 (CMV4GX3M2A1333C9) $59
Hard Drive Samsung Spinpoint F3 500GB
(HD502HJ 7200RPM 16MB)
Optical Drive LG 22X DVDRW (GH22LS50) $17
Case Cooler Master Elite 360 $40
Power Supply Antec EarthWatts Green EA-380D 380W
(380W 80 Plus Bronze Certified)
Base System Total $375

Over the past summer I wound up building a rash of budget systems for friends and family; over the past year you can chalk a couple more up. I actually have about two more queued up for the holiday season, so suffice it to say I keep a list of go-to parts for my builds that I've been consistently satisfied with. For this build I decided to go for a sort of "optimum budget" machine, and with most selections I'll have a suggestion as to how to reduce the price tag without hurting overall quality. There are some compromises made here—note the lack of a video card—but I'm perfectly happy putting my stamp on this system.

The first big decision is the processor, and I want something that'll last. It's true that Grandma Millie may not need all that power, but I've found that the AMD Athlon II X4 has been my go-to for nearly every budget build since its inception; it's just that good of a deal. The price-performance is undeniable and when you can get a quad core for $99, why would you settle for less? If you need to make a deeper cut for users who aren't going to push the system that hard, I've been remarkably impressed by the AMD Sempron 140. It's a 2.7GHz single core, but of the three I've built, two have unlocked into stable dual-cores—i.e. Athlon II X2—and at $33, it's an absolute steal.

Picking the motherboard turned out to be a bit trickier, but I've found myself consistently satisfied with boards from MSI, Gigabyte, and ASUS. After narrowing the brand down, I want an integrated chipset that's going to pass my "Grandma Test:" is it powerful enough to play Hulu and YouTube HD video? That leaves us with the 785G and 880G chipsets, and since those have hit price parity (actually the 880G is cheaper now!), I opted to go with MSI's 880GM-E41. I'm not too thrilled about the SB710 Southbridge, but the lack of 6Gbps SATA isn't devastating. The ATI Radeon HD 4250 integrated graphics part offers enough horsepower to even play the odd game, but mostly it's there for hardware-accelerated video and Flash (with 10.1), which can make a big difference with Hulu. Unfortunately, this is about as low as I'll go; other cheaper integrated chipsets don't bring that acceleration to the table.

As far as memory goes, I'll be blunt here: I only buy Corsair for my own builds. Jarred recommends an A-DATA set on his build and I've been happy with them; the fundamental deal with RAM is this: it either works or it doesn't. The problem is that when RAM is bad, it can be difficult to figure out. I've used Corsair on nearly every build I've done for friends and family and I've seen a whole one bad stick of it. With 2GB kits only shaving maybe $20 off the cost of the build, it's hard to justify not going the full 4GB. If every penny must be spared, I wouldn't be unhappy with this Kingston 2GB (2x1GB) DDR3-1333 kit at $38; in my experience Kingston is another good, reliable brand.

With hard disk prices the way they are, your bottom rung should really be 500GB of storage; the amount you pay for the capacity you get below $50 just isn't worth it. I've also been consistently happy with Western Digital's Caviar Blue drives, but this would be a good time to bring out a new cult favorite: the Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB drive is stupid fast, and if you know where to look you can usually get it for about $60. For the budget sector, we opted to go with the 500GB model and save $20.

As far as budget cases go, I've been very happy with the Cooler Master Elite 360 and have used it on a few builds; in fact, I actually have one in my house for my media center PC. The Elite 360 isn't built for big, power-hungry builds, but it's usually cool and quiet enough for even a decent gaming machine provided you opt for a video card that will fit in the enclosure. I've elected to pair it with a 380W Antec EarthWatts Green power supply (don't forget the power cord if you don't have extras!); there's enough room to breathe for an efficient video card like an ATI Radeon HD 5770 down the road (which will fit just fine in the Elite 360), and you never want to cheap out on the power supply if you can avoid it.

The rest is going to be a matter of religion and taste. You can get a decent display with (crappy) built-in speakers for a low price. For the operating system, there's always Ubuntu, or you can usually find a good deal on Windows 7 if you know where to look (student discounts are amazing for this). But the build I've specced out here is something I'd be confident with. I've got comparable parts running in machines at home and in the machines of friends and family, and there's been nary a peep from anyone. That should tell you the real value of speccing out a good system from the get-go and not cutting corners on parts: peace of mind, and peace and quiet.

Holiday 2010 System Builder's Guide Balraj's Intel Budget System
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  • StormyParis - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    htpc should fit into a stereo cabinet. you're trying to build a NAS + HTPC + desktop into one machine, which makes no sense at all. Split the thing in 3, with a real, small, silent HTPC, a NAS, and a mini-itx desktop, and you're much better off, for pretty much the same price.
  • ajlueke - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    While it is somewhat a matter of personal preference, I admit, some people really hate giant cases in the living room. I love having everything built into one system, and using it to serve the rest of the house and play Starcraft II on the big screen. The real downside, is then you are using a high end rig to serve you other computers as opposed to a NAS, and a NAS is going to have far superior numbers in the power consumption department.
  • Mathieu Bourgie - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Good job on the builds everyone, great idea of getting several members of the AT's team to work together on this.

    Here are my opinions, suggestions and things that I'd personally change:

    Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System:
    Hard Drive: Actually, if you shop on Amazon instead, you can snap a Spinpoint F3 500Gb for about $46 and a 1TB for $53, without needing to find any coupons.

    Power Supply: I'd mention that the Antec EarthWatts Green EA-380D 380W doesn't include a power cord in its package. Not a big deal for most of us, but still good to knowi f you don't have a spare cord.

    DVD Burner: Why go with an IDE based model, which is out of stock by the way? Because the motherboard comes with a single SATA and a single IDE cable? Hardly a reason if you ask me.

    Might as well get a SATA model that can be used for years and years, if you upgrade the system down the road. Going by customer's feedback on NewEgg, ASUS 24x SATA DVD Burner is one of the most reliable model available, for only $20: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Balraj's Intel Budget System:
    The one stick of RAM is an interesting trade off, sure you lose dual-channel but you gain the ability to easily upgrade RAM down the road. Then again, a motherboard with 4 RAM slots would allow for both options.

    Blu-Ray: The Samsung SH-B083L/BSBP has pretty bad reviews on NewEgg, I'd get the Samsung SH-B123L instead, which costs $20 more, but is also faster (12x vs 8x).

    Power Supply: I cannot skip this: you really want to avoid using a low-end, generic power supply, for reliability purposes and to protect your components. You do not want to cut corners on a power supply.

    Jarred's AMD Budget Gaming System:
    You mention Crossfire support, but go with a motherboard that has the PCI-Express 16x slots running at 16x and 4x, which would bottleneck performance?

    For a similar price, the ASRock 870 EXTREME3 comes with two PCI-Express 16x slots at 8x/8x, which are well spaced to allow both cards to "breath".

    125W CPU, with a stock cooler? Sure, it's "adequate" for cooling in most cases, but that stock cooler is going to be heard from miles away when you game for hours and/or during hot summer nights if you don't have an AC. Not much of an issue if you play with headphones, but still, I'd get at least a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus CPU Cooler.

    "Gaming depends primarily on your GPU" "You could even go with a cheaper CPU like the Athlon II X4 645 or the Phenom II X4 810"
    Agreed for most games, but there are games that will be CPU bound (Think RTS like SC2, or MMORPG like WoW), where you'll want a powerful CPU that allow the GPU to flex its muscles.
    Also, while the X4 645 isn't a bad CPU, losing the L3 cache and the lower frequencies are going to hurt performance quite a bit for video games.

    Vivek's Midrange Intel System:
    Once again, Crossfire is mentioned, but the second PCI-Express slot runs at 4x...

    An ASRock P55 EXTREME4 will fix that and if you want USB 3.0 and SATA 6.0Gb/s at the same time as Crossfire 8x/8x, you'll want an ASUS P7P55D-E Pro, which features a PLX chip, making it one of the few P55 boards that can run SATA 6.0Gb/s, USB 3.0 and Crossfire 8x/8x all at once, unlike most boards where USB 3.0 and SATA 6.0Gb/s will fall back to USB 2.0 and SATA 3.0Gb/s due to the lack of bandwidth (lack of PCI-Express lanes, thanks to the P55 chipset).

    PSU: OCZ don't exactly make the most reliable PSUs, with the biggest issue being that reliability varies from a model to another, since they use various manufacturers for their PSUs. You get what you pay for with a PSU and a solid Corsair or Seasonic PSU will serve you much better IMO.

    Raja's Midrange AMD Overclocking System:
    I actually agree with all your choices and like how you didn't strictly stick to NewEgg. Way to go.

    Raja's Midrange Intel Overclocking System:

    I'd avoid the ASUS Maximus III GENE like the plague. I used to recommend it, until I'd hear back from so many readers that had issues with it (Read some review on NewEgg) that I had no choice but to stop recommending it, because it's so unreliable.

    Ryan's High-End Gaming System:
    Way to go for keeping noise somewhat under control. Once again though, an IDE DVD Burner in a 2k+ system? Really?

    Also, the sound card is priced at $100, not $75, unless I missed something here.

    Brian's Intel Dream PC:
    Hahaha, now you're talking! Couldn't agree more on the motherboard, which is a one of a kind.

    Just one thing though: You forgot CPU Coolers, since Xeon CPUs don't come with any.

    Also, why ECC RAM? ECC seems kind of futile for a Gaming PC.

    Keyboard: Yes! Mechanical keyboards are the best. I personally recently got a Filco with MX Cherry Blue switches and that keyboard helped me increase my WPM typing speed tremendously. The feedback and noise is also great for gaming.

    Mouse: I've always been a fan of the Logitech MX-518, which remains excellent years after its release and offers a great bang for your buck too.

    Don't have much to add to the HTPCs, they make sense and quite frankly, it's a matter of personal tastes too.

    Except for a few things mentioned above, great job all on the builds. Although I'm a bit sadden to not have seen any Workstation build.

    P.S. For those who wonder about my experience building PCs and the like, I’m a computer enthusiast with 10 years of experience in building, fixing and modifying computers, who has been writing about/offering PC Builds of all kinds (Gaming, HTPC, Workstations, etc.) at various price points on my own blog (www.hardware-revolution.com) for over two years and a half now.

  • Ben90 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I agree completely on the inclusion of a mechanical keyboard, they are the SSDs of the keyboard world. Once you try to type on rubber domes again it feels absolutely horrible.
    Personally I am a Cherry Black guy as I like the linear travel for gaming, but for typing its impossible to beat Cherry Blues unless quietness is a metric.
  • bji - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    How do you feel about scissor switch keyboards? I like them as I find them to be much less mushy than rubber dome keyboards, but alot quieter and with less key travel than mechanical keyboards. I use the Kensington "Slim Type Keyboard" (that's what it says on the bottom, I can't remember the exact model number) and highly recommend it.
  • Tom_S - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Concerning keyboards etc. I *have* been living under a rock and had not heard of the DAS keyboard that sounds interesting, but while under the rock I have been using my Northgate and Avant keyboards (made by CVT Inc) which were always the gold standard in mechanical keyboards. I looked at the site, and it appears that the lesser of the Avant kbds is not available right now, but the Stellar is.

    I concede that these are old fashioned - not USB without an adapter, no USB hub, but they have been around since the 1980's and are noteworthy. To further date myself, one of their features has been to remap the left ctrl and caps lock keys (moving ctrl next to the "a" key), for those of us still used to old terminals and editors/programming environments that use control keys.
  • strikeback03 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Are the current Samsung HDDs any good? A couple years ago I bought a Samsung HDD recommended on this site for a build for work. First one wouldn't allow an OS install. RMAed it, got a replacement. That one died a few months later. RMAed that, bought one from another brand, and after testing the third Samsung to be sure it could be formatted when we got it just kept it on the side for emergency use. Can't say I'm anxious to try again.
  • Mathieu Bourgie - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Samsung HDDs are some of the best drives on the market in my opinion. Their F3 and F4 (The 7,200 rpm 320GB model that is) line-up offer some of the best throughputs rates in MB/s, are very reliable and emit very little heat.

    For the average latency time, the Western Digital drives tend to be better, although they run hotter and have slightly lower reliability. For Gaming, I'd say that WD drives are the best, but quite frankly, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a system equipped with Samsung or WD drives.

    Also, keep in mind warranty: W.D. offers 5 years on their Black Caviar line-up, as opposed to 3 years on their Caviar Blue and 3 years for Samsung drives.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I did try to price-check everything using our internal pricing tools (Dynamite-Data is an AnandTech affiliate of sorts), so where I could find clearly better prices from other than Newegg I went that route. Obviously, 10 systems or whatever makes it a bit difficult to get every little detail, which is why some IDE DVDRW drives slipped in. Oops!

    The CrossFire/SLI issue on lower end motherboards (i.e. P55 with x16/x4) was another one that I wracked my brain on for a good long time. I'd really like to go the Biostar route on Vivek's setup (or the overclocking board), but truthfully I'm a bit gun-shy with Biostar. I've had decent boards in the past from them, and other boards that sucked hard. Price is another item that I kept running into -- I don't want to recommend an expensive Intel board when SB is coming so soon.

    I'll try to go through and update the optical drives to be SATA, though. Shame on my fellow writers for being so lazy! :-) Thanks for the comments.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Okay, I made some updates and added some additional commentary where appropriate. But I chose to disagree (or let the editors disagree at least) with some of your comments. IMO, there's no need for aftermarket cooling on CPUs if you don't intend to overclock, so I left my build without one.

    The other big issue is Newegg reviews; they're just not reliable by any stretch. We've had motherboards that our guys loved that get mediocre scores at Newegg because of idiot users. "Gee... my memory isn't working and I plugged it in, never looked at the BIOS, never updated the BIOS. What's wrong with this board!?" Likewise, some items get 5 eggs not because they're the best but because a lot of buyers think they're a great value... and they wouldn't know quality if it walked up and punched them in the nose. So, while I generally avoid stuff that gets 3 eggs or less, the 4/5 egg stuff may be decent, good, or great depending on the user. Plus, people with problems are about 10X more likely to post as people where everything worked fine.

    Anyway, thanks for the corrections/suggestions.

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