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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  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Honestly, the AMD/Intel stuff was in a large part based on editor personal preference. For a budget build, it's hard to match AMD, but ultimately it's just a $40 upgrade to Intel. Some of us really like AMD, some of us really prefer to run Intel. Funny thing is that I'm more of an Intel guy but decided that AMD made the most sense for what I was building, and Vivek definitely wanted to do Intel. Also consider that we didn't want a ton of overlap; if you asked each of us for a system we would REALLY build, no one would put together a dream setup, and likewise few of us would go budget; you'd get all sorts of $700-$1300 builds.

    The graphics card side was left entirely up to the editors. Some felt the need to list both options and others went with what they felt was "best". But then, there's enough parity in current GPUs that you really can go either way and be fine. So that's pretty much how the process went.
  • wumpus - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Why in the world do you need to make separate Intel/AMD builds to keep the fanboys happy, and why don't you bother to include AMD/Nvidia splits as well?

    Second, I have to question pairing a GTX580 with a 1920x1200 monitor. While it does let you play crysis2 with absolutely everything turned on, it will be spinning its wheels doing everything else. While trying to build a decent $900 eyefinity* system might require raiding the budget from other components, the end result (5' of monitor instead of a big port hole) is likely superior to any single monitor 1920x1200 (even 24" IPS and a GPU that *never* drops below 60fps).

    Finally, with all the worrying over hard drive brands nobody gave a thought to RAID5? You would think in the "ultimate HTPC" system might want to keep data after a drive death, but I guess all that expensive and noisy gear already thrown at it priced [physical] data integrity out the window (an SSD in an HTPC? Junk the software first and put something that works in its place!)

    *note that a pair of 460s should not be ignored, and probably fit the price best when trying to match with 3 monitors
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Might want to read Brian's build a bit more carefully:

    "On every system I've built in recent memory, I've gone with an SSD + RAID array of slow but capacious storage; I think the same is best here. Get four or five 1.5TB or higher HDDs of whatever brand makes you feel warmest inside, toss them in a RAID5 set, and enjoy a crap-ton of storage that's fully redundant. I suppose if you're really feeling ultimate, you could get a RAID card instead of using the ICH10R's software fakeRAID, but it probably isn't critical unless you want to eek out everything you can from those mechanical drives."

    Anand has also added his build, with RAID1.

    As for 580 + WUXGA, while Crysis is the game everyone mentions, let me just state that Bad Company 2 (and the new Medal of Honor uses the same engine) can be very demanding as well... about as demanding as Crysis in fact. Mafia 2, Metro 2033, and a variety of upcoming and recent titles are also very demanding. I've got a 30" panel with 5850 CrossFire, and I certainly can't max out everything!
  • ajlueke - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I did think about doing RAID 5 in my build. But in all honesty, out of the 3 WD20EARS drives I have purchased and the several 1 TB black editions from WD ,I have never had a single one fail...ever. Certainly I back up my programs and documents as well as anything that cannot be replaced such as pictures and itunes purchases. All the other data on the media drives is already backed up on the physcial discs from which they were ripped, and are now safely stored in my basement. Yes, it would be time consuming to rerip all of the media on a failed drive, but it is also time consuming to rebuild a RAID 5 array. I found the money spent on an extra drive for the storage overhead of a RAID 5 is better spent on cooling solutions to prevent drive failure in the first place. As I have never had a HDD fail in five years of building HTPC systems, I think the policy has worked out fairly well for me. The setup is actually extremely quiet, but certainly not as much some smaller solutions. But adding an SSD definately helps with the noise, as do the green edition WD drives.
  • Jovec - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I agree with the need for data backup, but RAID 1/5 really has no place in 99% of home usage situations. You are better off using a spare drive(s) for a proper backup. RAID provides insurance against hardware failures, but not user error. You are much more likely to suffer an accidental deletion/overwrite/etc than a drive failure.
  • mattgmann - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Everything has looked pretty good until this machine.

    For one, why is a monitor now included? Though I do think it's a good monitor (nice alternative to the dell U2410). But, as a gaming system, why not get 3 24" tn panels for the same price for eyefinity goodness?

    Also, what is with the use of all the WD drives? They're good drives, but the samsung f3 and f4 drives are just plain faster and don't cost any more.

    Is a sound card really necessary? I would only include it if you're including speakers.
  • Iketh - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    i really appreciated the addition of a monitor in the higher priced builds... the cheaper builds are assumed you'll reuse your current display, just common sense in my book... and then eyefinity? no thanks, unless a monitor with one large curved display exists...

    i have never and will never build my mid-range or higher gaming PC without a dedicated sound card... the sound clarity is very noticeable for headphones or higher-end speaker systems... but I agree 100% with not a mention of speakers for the systems including a dedicated sound card, please add suggestions!!
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, November 23, 2010 - link

    3 TN monitors is certainly an option and I mentioned it in the writeup. However all of these builds are ultimately based at least partially around our preferences, and my preference is for a larger, high quality monitor paired with a single fast GPU, as opposed to many low quality monitors and a dual-GPU configuration.
  • Nataku - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Eh... I just thought we'd see a few low~mid range systems with SSDs lol

    I was going to put together a system like below (im going to wait for sandy bridge instead though)
    Zotac H55 w/ wifi
    One of the lower cost SSD
    probably thermaltake's Element Q for case
    cheapest 4GB kit I can find

    guess size of HDD does still matter more XD
  • Nataku - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    and... stupid of me to forget to include the CPU =.= i was thinking i3 lower end ones

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